Birtukan Mideksa’s Speech at Amnesty International
“ Amnesty International, My Release, and Human Rights in Ethiopia: A Perspective from a Former Political Prisoner” (more…)
“ Amnesty International, My Release, and Human Rights in Ethiopia: A Perspective from a Former Political Prisoner”
Good evening ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to be in your presence today and to speak at this Write‐a¬thon event. Similar events that Amnesty International has hosted in the past years have made my appearance today possible. Thousands of letters written through this same project made sure my name was not forgotten. The pressure exerted by Amnesty and others made it impossible for my captors to keep me behind bars. I would like to use this opportunity to appreciate what the staff and action members of the Amnesty did in defense of my case in the difficult times of my imprisonment.
When I was thrown to federal prison of Ethiopia in the year 2008, no one expected that I would be locked up in solitary confinement and that I would not be allowed to have a visit from my friends, my relatives and my lawyer. That was not because people believed in the track record of Ethiopian prisons but because that did not happen in the first round of my incarceration as a political prisoner. In that lonely time of mine, I did not have a chance to see or greet any fellow human being over the weeks and days, with the only exception of my momentary encounter with the wardens who used to lock and unlock my cell. But things changed a little bit when I was mingled with other two cellmates and when I get transferred to another cell. This time around, six women wardens were assigned to monitor and supervise us. Every one of the wardens had spent a good deal of her life in the guerrilla warfare led by the political party which has stayed in power for the last twenty years. For reasons I didn’t know, the situation was set in a way that I could talk to these ladies. But their bias, considering me a troublemaker, did not allow me to make up for what I missed in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, I developed a conversational relationship with one of them through time. Initially we did not chat on anything substantive. We tended to talk about our kids, and about the life she is leading as a prison police and other mundane life matters.
Along the process, the perception of my new friend became entirely changed. In fact she became confused. She was not able to understand why I was in prison with a life sentence just for making a political statement, just for expressing my beliefs. But it was naïve of her not to realize how her former guerilla leaders got changed a lot and alienated themselves from their comrades like her. She felt like she could express whatever discontent she had about the activities of her party, and she believed that her say would be taken into consideration. And then, she directly contacted one of the officials of the prison to tell him how she found my arrest to be ridiculous. Unfortunately, the only great friendship I enjoyed for a while had to end at that moment. My friend was transferred to another section immediately. But I will remain indebted for the invaluable companionship she gave me and for the positive energy she bestowed on me which really helped me not to lose my humanity. When this lady knew me in some abstract sense I was someone who is committed to creating a nuisance in the system. But when she grew to know me personally, she could not close her eyes to the interconnectedness we have as human beings, and that in turn led her to see my case in the new light of rationality. Finally, she was unable to disregard the injustice I was subjected to. Dear friends, As you might all know, the raison d’être of all kinds of atrocities which expose the evil in the human race were doctrines, ideologies and views which failed to view each fellow human being as a part of one universal whole. In fact the basic commonality that we can see in these inhumane worldviews is their vehement attempt to divide that whole and to impose such a strong sense of “us versus them” among fellow human beings. On the contrary, the belief in our Brotherhood and Sisterhood has been sustaining all the meaningful activities, like that of Amnesty, which have been carried out in defense of citizens’ rights. I think one can recognize the equality and liberty of other people just to not relapse to the of state of nature as it is illustrated by Thomas Hobbes. One can respect another’s rights because he is afraid of the retaliation that might compromise his own rights. But to fight for the rights of others, one needs to consider others as part of oneself. In the 21st Century, there is no Nazism with its bold narratives with an intention of subduing certain sector of the public .We don’t have the strong block of the Marxist countries which presses a doctrine of totalitarian coercion in the name of the oppressed. Nevertheless, people who are obsessed with greed for power and who failed to see themselves within their co‐citizens are still widely engaged in brutal abuse of human rights all around the world.
But there is another aggravating factor which emanates from another corner as well .We have world leaders who have a hail of zeal and passion to protect and respect the rights of their citizens but who somehow loose that intense passion when it comes to the liberties of a fellow human being, who accidentally happens to be a citizen of another country. I don’t think these leaders and politicians are endorsing what is being done by the real observant tyrants. But it is a pity that their immersion in the numerous details and tactics of short term political success, curtails their empathy for the plights and suffering of their co‐citizens in this world .Their assessment is too general and their direction is very impersonal .That made them loose an element of humanity in their transactions.
This is exactly what is happening regarding numerous political activists, journalists, and opposition party supporters who are languishing in the horrible prisons of Ethiopia while I am speaking. The fact that democracy is getting new grounds in our world leads the rulers of Ethiopia to intensify their repressive actions against all their citizens who have dissenting opinions. The renowned journalist of our country, Eskinder Nega, is in prison because of what he wrote and spoke for the 8th times in his life. The young political party leader ,Andualem Arage, is taking the bitter experience of incarceration without committing any crime for another second term. The brave woman journalist Reyot Alemu has spent the last several months in the horrible Ethiopian prison for allegedly reporting for some website which is being run from here. These are only some of the names which headline the list of political prisoners who are victimized by the recent repressive measure of the regime. Funnily enough, all are charged with acts of terrorism. I think the charge is named after the terrified state of mind of the rulers than the actual acts of the prisoners. Of course it was easy to give a legal face for these cases since Ethiopia had adopted an anti‐terrorism law which criminalizes every types of dissent in the country. While our citizens are being inflicted with angering injustice, we never heard a word from any major actors of the international community who are supposed to stand with people, who are suffering for the values we share as members of human race. It is because of this kind of gap that Amnesty International’s Write‐A‐Thon project has an indispensable role. It somehow utilizes the power of ordinary citizens to humanize the policies and transactions of their governments.
So,if any one of you would like to give new life to a person who is thrown in the darkness, write those letters to the politicians in your country. If you want to stop the unimaginable agony and pain of someone who is entirely innocent, write and send those letters to people in higher places. If you want to change the confusion and helplessness created in minds of the little ones as a result of their parent’s incarceration, I tell you it is a good idea to write those letters. Those letters has helped me, those letters has given relief to my daughter ,of course those letters has stopped the mourning of my aging mother. Don’t consider it as something insignificant. It would definitely attack all the tyrants of the world in the battlefield they don’t like to have: the battlefield of truth and justice. But I don’t want to hide one fact from you. I always long to see a world that doesn’t need Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Reporters without Borders. Who knows‐one day we all could share the poetic inspiration of John Donne and sing the refrains together:
No man is an island, entire of itself every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main………….. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.