By Ingrid Nugent
Professor Mesfin Woldemariam was one of 38 political prisoners who walked out of Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and into a cheering crowd of relatives and supporters on July 20. Their release came just minutes after the president of Ethiopia granted them pardons.
Mesfin was arrested in 2005, like most of the other prisoners, as part of a political crackdown that followed contested parliamentary elections. During post-election protests, security forces killed 187 people, and 6 police officers also died. The 38 prisoners—who were originally charged with treason, inciting violence, attempted genocide and related offenses—received pardons after submitting a letter to the government of Ethiopia acknowledging “mistakes committed both individually and collectively” in relation to the 2005 elections.
Mesfin, now 77, said before his release, “For me, a life will have meaning only if you are involved. A life without involvement is really no life at all.” The retired geography professor is the founder of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Council, a nongovernmental organization that investigates and reports human rights abuses.
Amnesty International had been sharply critical of Mesfin’s detainment, conviction and life prison sentence, which were based solely upon prosecution evidence. AIUSA designated him a Special Focus Case and generated a wave of demonstrations, letters, postcards and petitions on his behalf. AIUSA’s advocacy director for Africa, Lynn Fredriksson, and Ethiopia country specialist Charles Schaefer were instrumental in urging U.S. government officials to press for the release of these prisoners of conscience.
During his 20-month imprisonment, Mesfin suffered serious health problems, including a 2006 bout with pneumonia that required emergency medical treatment. He and other prisoners were also denied any correspondence with family or lawyers.
AI continues to monitor human rights conditions in Ethiopia and has renewed its calls for the government to release many other prisoners of conscience and political prisoners still locked up in Kaliti Prison, including two civil society activists, Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie. They were accused with the 38 but opted to submit a defense. AI is also watching the case of another prisoner of conscience, Kifle Tigne, who is a member of the opposition elected to parliament in 2005. His trial is scheduled to begin in October.