Letter From Ethiopia’s Gulag By ESKINDER NEGA – The New York Times

July 25th, 2013 Print Print Email Email

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — I AM jailed, with around 200 other inmates, in a wide hall that looks like a warehouse. For all of us, there are only three toilets. Most of the inmates sleep on the floor, which has never been swept. About 1,000 prisoners share the small open space here at Kaliti Prison. One can guess our fate if a communicable disease breaks out.

I was arrested in September 2011 and detained for nine months before I was found guilty in June 2012 under Ethiopia’s overly broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which ostensibly covers the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts. In reality, the law has been used as a pretext to detain journalists who criticize the government. Last July, I was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

I’ve never conspired to overthrow the government; all I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform. The state’s main evidence against me was a YouTube video of me, saying this at a public meeting. I also dared to question the government’s ludicrous claim that jailed journalists were terrorists.

Under the previous regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, I was detained. So was my wife, Serkalem Fasil. She gave birth to our son in prison in 2005. (She was released in 2007.) Our newspapers were shut down under laws that claim to fight terrorism but really just muzzle the press.

We need the United States to speak out. In the long march of history, at least two poles of attraction and antagonism have been the norm in world politics. Rarely has only one nation carried the burden of leadership. The unipolar world of the 21st century, dominated for the past two decades by the United States, is a historical anomaly. And given America’s role, it bears a responsibility to defend democracy and speak out against those nations that trample it.

I distinctly remember the vivacious optimism that inundated the United States when the Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990s. This was not glee generated by the doom of an implacable enemy, but thrill germinated by the real possibilities that the future held for freedom.

And nothing encapsulated the spirit of the times better than the idea of “no democracy, no aid.” Democracy would no longer be the esoteric virtue of Westerners but the ubiquitous expression of our common humanity.

But sadly America’s actions have fallen far short of its words. Suspending aid, as many diplomats are apt to point out, is no panacea for all the ills of the world. Nor are sanctions. But that’s a poor excuse for the cynicism that dominates conventional foreign policy. There is space for transformative vision in diplomacy.

Sanctions tipped the balance against apartheid in South Africa, minority rule in Zimbabwe, and military dictatorship in Myanmar. Sanctions also buttressed peaceful transitions in these countries. Without the hope of peaceful resolution embedded in the sanctions, a descent to violence would have been inevitable.

Now that large swaths of Africa have become safely democratic, ancient and fragile Ethiopia, where a precarious dictatorship holds sway, is dangerously out of sync with the times.

In May, America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, visited Ethiopia and lauded the country’s economic growth. His words showed how little attention he paid to reality. The State Department’s annual report on human-rights conditions has been critical of Ethiopia’s government since 2005. I’d like to think that report represents the real stance of America’s government, rather than Mr. Kerry’s praise for our authoritarian leaders.

Not much has changed since our last dictator, Mr. Meles, died last August. There have been no major policy changes. The draconian press and antiterrorism laws are still there. There has been no improvement when it comes to press freedom.

With a population fast approaching 100 million, Ethiopia, unlike Somalia, is simply too big to ignore or contain with America’s regional proxies.

As Ethiopia goes, so goes the whole Horn of Africa — a region where instability can have major security and humanitarian implications for the United States and Europe. Al Qaeda has a presence here, and hundreds of millions of aid dollars flow into the region while millions of emigrants flow out.

In other words, Ethiopia must not be allowed to implode. And it would be irresponsible for the world’s lone superpower to stand by and do nothing.

It is time for the United States to live up to its historical pledge by taking action against Ethiopia, whose reckless government has, since 2005, been the world’s star backslider on democracy.

I propose that the United States impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia (while continuing to extend humanitarian aid without precondition) and impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.

Tyranny is increasingly unsustainable in this post-cold-war era. It is doomed to failure. But it must be prodded to exit the stage with a whimper — not the bang that extremists long for.

I am confident that America will eventually do the right thing. After all, the new century is the age of democracy primarily because of the United States.

Here in the Ethiopian gulag, this alone is reason enough to pay homage to the land of the brave.

Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been imprisoned since September 2011.

  1. Leqa Naqamtee
    | #1

    Dear prime minster Hailemarim Desalgne,

    I believe that your leadership will bring significant change in Ethiopia, in political sector, economic sector, social sector, democratic sector etc. I understand that 2012 was not a luck year to you and your government, the reason was you have lost one of your beloved comrades Meles Zenawi. In fact that was another paradigm in bringing you to your current position. To me the paradigm is not simple political; I believe that it was the divine work of God. We have to accept this bitter reality and think about God sovereign potential in changing situations in many uncountable ways.
    Dear Your Excellency Hailmearim Desalgne, now God has granted you to use your conscience, now you can bring better things ever not dreamed by any of your party members, and take a lead in changing the fate of our country. In materialistic terms your government is doing well. Similarly we know that still millions are striving for daily bread. I fully accept that you have read the New Testament different scriptures. There is no powerful word like “love and forgiveness”, if you believe by this two key God words and practice it in all walk of your political power and leadership time, it is not me and the remaining Ethiopian people that would be pleased rather it is God.
    Now let me present to you one honest request. As you can read from the above Eskinder (my friend) statement to USA, I can understand that he has frustrated in prison for unlawful reasons. I know another person who have similar complain and now in exile (my friend) Bekel Gerba, so many similar Ethiopians with similar complain.
    With these two preconditions I decide directly to write to you (in very humble manner) , not for USA Government like what Eskinder did to ask mercy for this two and other many political prisoners (kept in exile) for so many years, months, far from their beloved family and children’s. As a Christian I confirm you that when God decide to bring you to power and take away the late prime minister Meles Zenawi , it is not just a simple coincidence. God has an agenda for Ethiopia, for innocents, for children’s and women, and pastoralists and peasants, poor’s and riches, all ethnic groups’ majority and minority. As a Christian leader you have spiritual obligation and as EPRDF political party leader you have still moral obligations to introduce new reconciliation and forgiveness chapter in Ethiopia political landscape. Here I won’t to play the role of our sister Esther that she was played in the Old Testaments. I believe that you are conversant with Esther book and the way the king decision changed the entire people situation living in 127 countries.
    We are on the onset of 2006. We want to see your forgiveness for our brothers and sisters suffering in prison. We want to see your determination for reconciliation through announcing a national reconciliation day. This must be announced on September 1, 2006. I believe that, if you understand God plan for Ethiopia you are going to be god instruments for Good works in Ethiopia. God plan for Ethiopia is not suffering. It is not totally that. As Ethiopian we have suffered and punished a lot for all misdeeds we committed in front of God. Now it is time for Ethiopia to raise hands to God through you, it is you who should play this role. We have plenty of exemplary leaders from Bible, who punished and praised for all things they accomplished on earth. I am sure what I am trying to convey is clear. Please for God sake take your stick like Moss and free we from racism instead introduce the chapter of love and forgiveness. For us these are critical issues that we wish to see and handover to the coming generation and our immediate children’s. The material world that you and we are working for, our efforts to bring prosperous Ethiopia is empty, full of crime, unfair, corrupted and the generation will continue like this unless love, mercy and forgiveness are introduced widely and soon. This can happen during your time. Remember the purpose why Go brought you to power according to the book of Esther. Begin this by freeing political prisoners and continue to the chapters of reconciliation.
    We pray for you to have this determination, we believe God will help you. Save Ethiopia. You will be historical leader in accomplishing God most divine plan for Ethiopia.
    Forgive me for my courage to bring this issue to your high position.

    God bless you.

    God bless Ethiopia and the Nation.

  2. Leqa Naqamtee
    | #2

    Dear prime minster Hailemarim Desalgne,

    I believe that your leadership will bring significant change in Ethiopia, in political sector, economic sector, social sector, democratic sector etc. I understand that 2012 was not a lucky year to you and your government, the reason was you have lost one of your beloved comrades Meles Zenawi. In fact that was another paradigm in bringing you to your current position. To me the paradigm is not simple political; I believe that it was the divine work of God. We have to accept this bitter reality and think about God sovereign potential in changing situations in many uncountable ways.
    Dear Your Excellency Hailmearim Desalgne, now God has granted you to use your conscience, now you can bring better things ever not dreamed by any of your party members, and take a lead in changing the fate of our country. In materialistic terms your government is doing well. Similarly we know that still millions are striving for daily bread. I fully accept that you have read the New Testament different scriptures. There is no powerful word like “love and forgiveness”, if you believe by this two key God words and practice it in all walk of your political power and leadership time, it is not me and the remaining Ethiopian people that would be pleased rather it is God.
    Now let me present to you one honest request. As you can read from the above Eskinder (my friend) statement to USA, I can understand that he has frustrated in prison for unlawful reasons. I know another person who have similar complain and now in exile (my friend) Bekel Gerba, so many similar Ethiopians with similar complain.
    With these two preconditions I decide directly to write to you (in very humble manner) , not for USA Government like what Eskinder did to ask mercy for this two and other many political prisoners (kept in exile) for so many years, months, far from their beloved family and children’s. As a Christian I confirm you that when God decide to bring you to power and take away the late prime minister Meles Zenawi , it is not just a simple coincidence. God has an agenda for Ethiopia, for innocents, for children’s and women, and pastoralists and peasants, poor’s and riches, all ethnic groups’ majority and minority. As a Christian leader you have spiritual obligation and as EPRDF political party leader you have still moral obligations to introduce new reconciliation and forgiveness chapter in Ethiopia political landscape. Here I won’t to play the role of our sister Esther that she was played in the Old Testaments. I believe that you are conversant with Esther book and the way the king decision changed the entire people situation living in 127 countries.
    We are on the onset of 2006. We want to see your forgiveness for our brothers and sisters suffering in prison. We want to see your determination for reconciliation through announcing a national reconciliation day. This must be announced on September 1, 2006. I believe that, if you understand God plan for Ethiopia you are going to be god instruments for Good works in Ethiopia. God plan for Ethiopia is not suffering. It is not totally that. As Ethiopian we have suffered and punished a lot for all misdeeds we committed in front of God. Now it is time for Ethiopia to raise hands to God through you, it is you who should play this role. We have plenty of exemplary leaders from Bible, who punished and praised for all things they accomplished on earth. I am sure what I am trying to convey is clear. Please for God sake take your stick like Moss and free we from racism instead introduce the chapter of love and forgiveness. For us these are critical issues that we wish to see and handover to the coming generation and our immediate children’s. The material world that you and we are working for, our efforts to bring prosperous Ethiopia is empty, full of crime, unfair, corrupted and the generation will continue like this unless love, mercy and forgiveness are introduced widely and soon. This can happen during your time. Remember the purpose why Go brought you to power according to the book of Esther. Begin this by freeing political prisoners and continue to the chapters of reconciliation.
    We pray for you to have this determination, we believe God will help you. Save Ethiopia. You will be historical leader in accomplishing God most divine plan for Ethiopia.
    Forgive me for my courage to bring this issue to your high position.

    God bless you.

    God bless Ethiopia and the Nation.

  3. Yeleba lig
    | #3

    My heart aches for my Ethiopian peace loving brothers and sisters who are locked up 24/7 for crimes they didn’t commit. What a messed up world! Our law abiding patriotic Ethiopians like Eskinder Nega locked up for 18 to 20 years in a rat infested dirty prisons for seeking Democracy, and the daughter of mass murderer Meles, deposits FIVE BILLION DOLLARS in New York bank. Where is the justice in that? Why in the world the United State and the European Union chose to look the other way when it comes to the injustice in Ethiopia?

    http://ecadforum.com/2013/07/26/dr-wondimu-says-semhal-meles-deposits-5-billion/

  4. Kato
    | #4

    It is not only heart breaking but also devastating to witness the suffering and torment these brave Ethiopians like our HERO ESKINDER and many others are going through in the hands of this barbaric regime. It is even more tragic to realize the simple naked fact that the children of Ethiopia have to appeal to foreign goverments in the hope that these so called civilized and democratic nations show their solidarity and ultimately pressure this regime to stop brutalizing and terrorizing its own people. It is clear by now that the newly appointed PM will never change the tyranny that has been brought upon Ethiopia by the late hate ridden and arrogant dictator. The PM is simply a figure on a chase board those who move those figures are hell bent to prolong the strangle hold until the core of Ethiopia is dismantled.
    The appeal from Eskinder goes out to all freedom justice and peace loving Ethiopians. We are not free until all are free. Our conscience can not be free until all are free. We can not make believe as if we are free by trying to shrug off this nagging injustice that has befallen our country. We have to ask ourselves the question what can we do to support the jailed the oppressed and the voiceless?
    We all have a life to lead and for sure it is not easy but are we going to let our brothers and sisters out in the cold?

    We all have to let the word out wherever we are. We shall be the voice for the voiceless. We shall find a way to support those that need our help.

    Long live our Heroes

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