Summary and Current Status
On December 29, 2008, Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge in Ethiopia and leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ), was arrested by government agents, some of whom were armed. At the time of her arrest, she was with Ethiopian geographer and former prisoner of conscience Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, also a member of the UDJ party. He reportedly was severely beaten with the butt of a rifle and sustained a serious leg injury. Officials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice subsequently stated that the pardon issued to her in 2007 had been revoked and her original life sentence had been reinstated.
Ms. Birtukan was taken to Kaliti Prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where she was held in solitary confinement. Her prison cell reportedly was six feet sq., dirty, infested with bugs, and often extremely hot. She reportedly was allowed visits only from her 78-year-old mother and her four-year-old daughter. She was allowed to meet with her lawyer only sporadically. Through him, she reportedly filed a grievance, claiming that she had the right to receive visitors other than her mother and daughter. It is our understanding that the court heard her grievance and agreed that her rights had been infringed upon. However, the Prison Administration reportedly rejected the court’s ruling. Reliable reports indicate that she undertook a hunger strike for two weeks following her arrest, for which she received no medical care.
After 21 months in prison, Ms. Mideksa was released from Kaliti Prison on October 6, 2010. She told reporters that she had asked for her pardon. Amnesty International considered Ms. Birtukan to be a prisoner of conscience.
Previously, in late 2005, Ms. Mideksa was among a large number of opposition leaders and human rights defenders who were arrested and, subsequently, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. A lengthy mediation process between the government and a group of elders eventually led to the government issuing Ms. Mideksa and the others a pardon.
Birtukan Mideksa is a 35-year-old Ethiopian lawyer and former judge. She has a four-year-old daughter. Ms. Birtukan graduated from Addis Ababa University Law School with a Bachelors Degree in Law. She practiced law in the third district of the federal judiciary. She was subsequently appointed a judge in the Third District Court. Ms. Birtukan eventually gave up her judicial position in protest against government interference in the independence of the judiciary. Subsequently she became a human rights advocate. In December 2005 Ms. Birtukan was among a group of 131 leaders and supporters of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP), journalists, and civil society leaders arrested following widespread protests against alleged rigging of the May 2005 national elections. She and a number of others were charged with a range of serious crimes, including treason, incitement to armed uprising, and genocide aimed against an ethnic group and members of the ruling party. She and other leaders were adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.
In 2006 Ms. Birtukan was one of a group of CUD leaders, parliamentarians, journalists and human rights defenders convicted of treason in a trial that failed to meet international fair trial standards. She was sentenced to life in prison. In July and August 2007, following a lengthy mediation process between government authorities and an independent group of Ethiopian elders, she and a number of other prominent opposition leaders were released under a presidential pardon. The prisoners were required to sign a letter of apology to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but the precise terms of the pardon were never made public.
Ms. Birtukan subsequently became the leader of the UDJ party, one of several opposition parties that split off from the former Coalition for Unity and Democracy. In November 2008 she spoke at a public meeting in Sweden about the process that led to her release. In response, the Ethiopian government reportedly accused her of breaking the conditions of her pardon by making a statement in Sweden describing the pardon process. Following her return to Addis Ababa on December 23, 2008, she was summoned to the Federal Police Commissioner’s office and informed by law enforcement officials that she had several days to retract what government officials claimed was a public denial that she had made a pardon request. Ms. Birtukan claims that she and the others who were released had never requested a pardon, but, rather, had signed a document written by the group of elders who mediated their release, agreeing to write a letter of apology. The document, which was also signed by the government, reportedly states that the prisoners were to be released without conditions. Click here to view a statement written by Ms. Birtukan just prior to her arrest, explaining why she refused to retract her statement made in Sweden.
As stated in the Summary and Current Status section, Ms. Birtukan was held in Kaliti Prisons under harsh conditions of confinement, including solitary confinement and inadequate hygiene. According to workers in Kaliti Prison, Ms. Birtukan was subjected to sleep deprivation and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.