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Case Information: Berhanu Nega
Berhanu Nega
DATE OF ARREST:November 2005

Summary and Current Status

On July 20, 2007—four days after Ethiopian economist Berhanu Nega, geographer Mesfin Woldemariam, economists Befekadu Degefe and Muluneh Eyual, and engineers Hailu Shawel and Gizachew Shifferaw were sentenced to life in prison and the deprivation of political rights—they were among a group of 38 opposition party officials (of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party), a human rights defender, and a journalist who received a presidential pardon, the restoration of their political rights, and their release from prison. They had been detained for more than 20 months under harsh conditions of confinement.

The detention, charges, and prosecution of Dr. Berhanu and his colleagues were met with widespread condemnation from many governments, including the United States and the European Union, and many human rights organizations. Eventually a group of Ethiopian elders, well respected by both the detainees and the Ethiopian government, was permitted to act as mediators in an attempt to find a mutually acceptable set of terms for negotiation and reconciliation. Dr. Berhanu and his colleagues have said that, in the spirit of reconciliation, they eventually agreed to sign a document drafted by the elders and negotiated by both sides, despite the government’s refusal to agree to any expectations on its part. The detainees signed the June 18, 2007 document in which they asked the public and the government for forgiveness in the hope that doing so would bring about a political resolution to a politically motivated charge and trial. According to Dr. Berhanu and his colleagues, it was agreed and included in the document that “All prisoners in the country detained on CUD matters would be released without precondition, that political dialogue between the government and the CUD would promptly resume, and that the party’s leaders would be allowed to resume party activity without any limitation.” According to the detainees, they never asked for a pardon—which, according to Ethiopian law must be requested by the defendants—and never agreed to receive one.

On November 1, 2005, Ethiopian economist Berhanu Nega, geographer Mesfin Woldemariam, economists Befekadu Degefe and Muluneh Eyual, and engineers Hailu Shawel and Gizachew Shifferaw were detained along with other leaders of the Ethiopian opposition party, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party, and hundreds of CUD supporters. The detentions followed widespread protests on October 31, 2005, against the contested May 2005 general elections. The CUD had called for a stay-home strike to be followed by peaceful demonstrations, but, when police began shooting with live ammunition, violence erupted. On December 21, Dr. Berhanu, Professor Mesfin, Mr. Befekadu, Mr. Muluneh, Mr. Hailu, and Mr. Gizachew were among 123 politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and 8 organizations (4 independent news organizations and the 4 political parties that united to form the CUD) charged by the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa with a range of crimes, many of which carried the death penalty. Twenty-one of the individuals originally charged were released. Of the 111 defendants who remained charged, approximately 80 were in custody. (The remaining individuals were either in hiding or were residing abroad.)

The details of the charges reportedly were revealed to some of the defendants in a hearing on December 21, 2005. Others received the details of the charges against them later. On January 4, 2006, the Federal High Court refused the defendants’ appeal to be released on bail. The trial began on May 2, 2006, before the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa and proceeded slowly. Amnesty International considered Dr. Berhanu, Professor Mesfin, Mr. Befekadu, Mr. Muluneh, Mr. Hailu, and Mr. Gizachew, along with other leaders of the CUD, to be prisoners of conscience.

Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin were previously detained for a month and then charged in May 2001 with operating to change the constitutional order by force and membership in an illegal organization. After being denied bail twice, they were released from custody on June 5, 2001. Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin went to court many times, only to have the hearings postponed each time. They appeared in court in July 2005 and were told once again that the case was to be postponed. According to reliable reports, following the release from prison of Dr. berhan and Professor Mesfin in July 2007, Dr. Berhanu was informed that the charges pending against him from the 2001 case had been dropped. Professor Mesfin, however, was told that the charges against him in the 2001 remain pending.


Dr. Berhanu is an economist. While a freshman at Addis Ababa University, he participated in a student movement advocating for democracy and human rights. When the former military regime cracked down on the students and several were killed, he fled Ethiopia to avoid prosecution. He reportedly lived in Sudan for two years and then moved to the United States when he was granted political asylum there. Dr. Berhanu received his undergraduate degree in economics from the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Ph.D. in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He lectured in economics for three years at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In 1994 Dr. Berhanu, his wife, and two young children returned to Ethiopia. He founded three small companies—Ethiopian Agro-Maize, Inc., A Fertilizer Producing Company, and Addis Village Family Home Builders, Inc.—and is chairman of the board of all three. He has been a lecturer, pro-bono, at Addis Ababa University’s Department of Economics. From 1996 to 2000 he was president of the Ethiopian Economics Association. In the early 2000s he established and ran the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, a non-profit organization. He was also an independent consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

On May 8, 2001, Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin were arrested in Addis Ababa by armed security forces. One month earlier, on April 8, 2001, they had given lectures at a seminar at Addis Ababa University that was hosted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO). Dr. Berhanu spoke about the principles of academic freedom within a university, and Professor Mesfin spoke about the principles of human rights and the nature of a university. On May 9, 2001, in response to the scientists' arrests, the EHRCO issued a statement that it had organized the April 8 seminar for university students and that it was "held peacefully and the issues of democratic rights and academic freedom were discussed frankly, but responsibly." In response to the government's accusations that the lecturers incited violence at the seminar, Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin said, "The issues we talked about are enshrined in the country's Constitution, and there is nothing violent in quoting the Constitution."

On May 29, 2001, Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin were formally charged with membership in an illegal organization and operating to change the constitutional order by force. After spending 28 days in prison and being denied bail twice, both men were released on bail on June 5, 2001. Judge Ambacho Abate reportedly said that the two defendants should be released from custody until their hearing in accordance with Article 63 of the Ethiopian Procedural Law. It is our understanding that the prosecution unsuccessfully appealed against this decision.

From the time of their release in June 2001 until their arrest in November 2005, Dr. Berhanu and Professor Mesfin had gone to court more than a dozen times. Each time the hearings were postponed. (On two occasions the hearing was postponed because one of the three judges was not available. At one court appearance, the hearing was postponed because the judges claimed that they had not yet reviewed the case records.) One of the charges against the defendants involved their alleged membership in an unauthorized political party, the Ethiopian Democratic League. The League, however, publicly stated that the defendants had never participated in any of its activities. According to Professor Mesfin's family, the judge requested prosecutors to take note of the League's statement, but the charge was never dropped nor changed.

In 2003 Dr. Berhanu joined with his colleague, Professor Mesfin, to start a movement for social justice and democracy called the Rainbow-Ethiopia Movement. Several months before the May 2005 general elections, the Rainbow-Ethiopia Movement joined with three other organizations—the All Ethiopia Unity Party, The Ethiopian Democratic Union Party – Medhin, and the Ethiopian Democratic League—to form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party, Ethiopia’s largest opposition coalition. Dr. Berhanu became a member of the Executive Committee and chairman of the 2005 election campaign of the CUD.

In May 2005, general elections were held in Ethiopia. After many weeks of vote counting, it was announced that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)) had won, but that the CUD had gotten more than 100 of the 547-seat parliament, including all 23 parliamentary seats reserved for the capital, Addis Ababa. Dr. Berhanu was elected a member of Parliament for the CUD. The CUD claimed that the elections were rigged and that the ruling EPRDF had sought to intimidate CUD supporters. After observing the elections in Ethiopia, the European Union’s Election Observation Mission to Ethiopia issued a report citing irregularities and stating that the elections did not meet international standards of free, fair, and transparent elections. On June 8, 2005, soldiers shot dead several dozen people in Addis Ababa who were protesting alleged election fraud. Thousands of opposition party supporters were detained, and some reportedly were badly beaten. After several weeks, all of them reportedly were released. In late August 2005 Dr. Berhanu was elected mayor of Addis Ababa.

When Ethiopia’s parliament convened on October 10, 2005, it was boycotted by virtually every one of the newly elected CUD members. The prime minister publicly accused the CUD of planning violence and stripped the boycotting members of Parliament of their parliamentary immunity. The CUD claimed that, in the weeks prior to the boycott, some 800 of its members and supporters were arrested. In mid October the European Parliament informed the Ethiopian government that it was considering whether or not to cut development aid to Ethiopia if the government did not stop the persecution and intimidation of the members and supporters of the opposition political parties. (The European Commission and the E.U. member states are among Ethiopia’s biggest donors, contributing approximately the equivalent of U.S. $490 million.)

In late October 2005, when the CUD called for a stay-home strike to be followed by a series of peaceful demonstrations and a general strike and boycott of government businesses, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused Dr. Berhanu, Professor Mesfin, Mr. Befekadu, Mr. Muluneh, and the other leaders of the CUD of planning a “violent conspiracy” against the government. Between November 1 and 4, 2005, 42 demonstrators were reportedly shot dead by police and approximately 200 were wounded. Reliable reports indicated that hundreds of people were detained.

Dr. Berhanu, Professor Mesfin, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Gizachew, Mr. Befekadu, and Mr. Muluneh and approximately 46 others were brought to Federal High Court in Addis Ababa on November 7, 2005. The court denied the detainees bail and extended their detention three times to allow for further police investigations of government accusations that the detainees were involved in a violent conspiracy. The court also ordered that the detainees be given “ample time” to consult with legal counsel and that access to medical care be facilitated. On December 1, the court ordered that the detainees be held for 15 additional days and stated that this would be the final detention order. The prosecution was told by the court that charges had to be brought by the end of that 15-day period.

As stated above, on December 21 Dr. Berhanu, Professor Mesfin, Mr. Befekadu, Mr. Muluneh, Mr. Hailu, and Mr. Gizachew were among 131 people charged by prosecutors with a range of crimes, many carrying the death penalty. Twenty-one were subsequently released because the charges against them were dropped. Amnesty International reported that the defendants included opposition party leaders or supporters detained since early November 2005, newly elected members of parliament, prominent human rights defenders (Professor Mesfin, Daniel Bekele, and Netsanet Demissie), independent journalists, individuals of Ethiopian origin who had been living abroad for many years, and many members of the CUD. Four independent news organizations and all four political parties belonging to the CUD were also charged. According to Amnesty International, the defendants were divided into groups facing different charges. The charges included “outrages against the Constitution,” obstructing the National Election Board, inciting and organizing armed uprising, endangering the integrity of the state, and high treason. Most of the defendants were also charged with “genocide,” reported Amnesty International, on the grounds of allegations of the beating of an ethnic Tigrayan, arson against the property of two Tigrayans, causing fear and mental harm to members of an ethnic group, and harming members of the ruling EPRDF by excluding them from social events and funerals.

With the exception of Muluneh Eyual, all of the detained CUD leaders were held in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa. Reliable reports indicated that they were held in overcrowded cells with approximately 100 common criminals—some of whom were believed to have tuberculosis and other easily communicable diseases. Sanitary facilities were poor, and there were reports that the cells were infested with rats and other rodents. Access to their families and legal representatives were severely restricted and were not permitted in private. (Mr. Muluneh reportedly was transferred from Kaliti Prison to Kerchele Central Prison, also in Addis Ababa, on April 8, 2006, and was held in a dark cell in solitary confinement. He reportedly was informed that he was transferred there because he allegedly had been disrespectful to members of Parliament who visited him in prison seeking his support and that of the other incarcerated CUD leaders to take over the administration of the Addis Ababa City Council in their absence. He reportedly was also told that he would be kept there until he stopped speaking in his native Kembata language during family visits and stopped wearing t-shirts with the CUD logo. It is our understanding that Mr. Muluneh undertook a hunger strike following his transfer.)


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