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By Peter Heinlein
30 December 2008
A leading Ethiopian opposition figure has been imprisoned, and faces life behind bars after a pardon she was granted last year was revoked. Opposition parties charge the arrest was politically-motivated.
Ethiopian authorities said opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party chief Birtukan Mideksa could spend the rest of her life in jail after refusing to acknowledge that she asked for the pardon that led to her freedom last year. She was among dozens of opposition leaders jailed in the violent aftermath of the Horn of Africa nation's 2005 elections and later convicted of treason.
Birtukan, a charismatic young lawyer and former judge, was widely reported to have made comments during a recent European tour denying that she had asked to be pardoned. The reports are said to have infuriated senior government officials, who said those convicted in connection with the 2005 protests were freed only after signing a document admitting guilt and asking to be pardoned.
A Matter of Law Or Violation of Pardon?
But government spokesman Bereket Simon, in a telephone interview, called Birtukan's imprisonment a simple matter of law in view of her violation of the terms of her pardon.
"She was found guilty after she was accused or charged for several crimes, and then a [court] ruled she committed a crime and sentenced her to imprisonment. Now the government, after she asked for pardon, granted her a conditional pardon, so she said I didn't ask for any pardon, and it's simple. The decision of the court will be applied, and basically it's a legal matter," he said.
Other leaders of the Unity for Democracy and Justice met Tuesday to discuss the way forward with their leader facing life in prison. The head of the party's parliamentary delegation, Temesgen Zewde, said the first step will be a legal challenge, since Birtukan's arrest appears to violate the terms of the pardon proclamation.
"There should have been a written notice her pardon was going to be revoked. She should have been given at least 20 days to respond, and that response should have been submitted to the pardon board. All through these last couple weeks she has been harassed, detained by police, roughed up and people with her roughed up and taken to prison., that is not the procedure stated in the proclamation," he said.
Creating a One Party State?
Temesgen accused Ethiopia's ruling party of abusing the rule of law in an attempt to create a one party state.
The rule of law as we see it today is interpreted to suit the interest, the political interest of the ruling party. It can be respected when it is appropriate and fits the situation and the interests of the ruling party. And it can be violated when it does not fit," he said.
Government spokesman Bereket rejected Temesgen's charge, describing the arrest as a technical matter with no political implications.
Imprisonment Changes Political Landscape
Birtukan's imprisonment changes Ethiopia's political landscape a year and a half before the next scheduled parliamentary elections. Her Unity for Democracy and Justice is an outgrowth of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, which was a major force in the disputed 2005 elections.
Birtukan was widely seen as the opposition's most charismatic figure and a prime ministerial hopeful, with potential to garner support among members of her Oromo ethnic group, which is Ethiopia's largest.
Her imprisonment follows the arrest two months ago of more than a dozen members of another opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement. Those arrested, including the party's general secretary, were accused of supporting a separatist group known as the Oromo Liberation Front.