A Path Charted by Courage

August 14, 2011

While attending law school at the Addis Ababa University, Judge Birtukan Mideksa’s vision might have been leading a decent and peaceful life while practicing law in Ethiopia’s judicial system. Fate would have her preside over a high profile case in early career as a district judge in the Ethiopian federal judiciary system.

According to some observers, this case was a feud between the then ruling party’s arguably two most powerful individuals, the former Defense Minister Siye Abraha, who was behind leading the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998 to 2000, and the country’s longtime prime minister, Meles Zenawi. According to other observers, including Siye Abraha, the case was about the direction in which to take the country, which has vast implications for the stability of the Horn of Africa region.

Despite the apparent prominence of the two individuals, she upheld the rule of law according to her judgment and set the defendant free on bail only to watch a moment later government agents arrest the defendant she had just freed on bail.

What personal experiences she faced in Ethiopia due to this case until her joining of Rainbow Ethiopia: Movement for Democracy and Social Justice political grouping is not clear. This political grouping was one of four that formed the Coalition for Unity and Democracy party that was quickly formed in the run-up the 2005 legislative elections in Ethiopia and gained major following especially in the capital.

Judge Birtukan was later promoted to a high ranking position in this party and later imprisoned in the aftermath of the elections, which led to the death of 193 people and seven policemen. Meles Zenawi ordered this clamp down and the leaders of the party were imprisoned for about 18 months.

In a process marred between negotiations involving a committee of elders led by Prof. Ephraim Isaac, and judicial course, they were released. She was later rearrested following her speech in Sweden in which she tried to explain the process that led to their release. She was released again by Meles Zenaw after after making attempts to have the Ethiopian public and international community believe that Judge Birtukan Mideksa requested a pardon from the Prime Minister for “misleading the Ethiopian people and government.

She subsequently left to the United States and was recently awarded the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship for 2011-2012 for one year by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This fellowship allows her to do independent research at NED in Washington, D.C.

When she was rearrested after her speech in Sweden, she released her letter, My Word, to the public. In that letter, she wrote: “Perhaps, this may be my last statement”, roughly translated from Amharic. She concluded her letter as follows: “It is my belief that it doesn't appear that I am subjected to all this unlawful order and scaring because of playing with words, or distorted truth, or a law that was broken. The message is clear; not only for me, but also for all peaceful compatriots. That the possibility to engage in a peaceful and constitutional political struggle is possible not according to the outline in the constitution but only according to the will of the ruling party or individuals. It is very hard for me to submit or say yes to this”. What she was subjected to between her second arrest and release remains to be elucidated.

However, her letter appears to have just opened another new chapter in her courageous journey she has charted in the service of what she believes in, stands for, and has lived by it. It is assured that her courageous letter wasn’t her last statement.

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