Trial of ex-NSU professor in Ethiopia at critical juncture

February 19th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

By MATTHEW BOWERS, The Virginian-Pilot | February 17, 2007

Monday looms as a judgment day for Yacob Hailemariam. The lawyer and former Norfolk State University professor has been imprisoned for more than a year in his home country, Ethiopia, after winning a parliament seat as a reformer


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Judges are scheduled to rule on the prosecution’s part of a trial on charges of treason and genocide against Hailemariam and more than 70 others, said Charles Schaefer, a country specialist for Amnesty International. The human rights organization objects to the Ethiopian government’s actions, has declared Hailemariam and others “prisoners of conscience,” and tracks the case through American diplomats there.

If the judges decide the case hasn’t been convincing, “possibly all the prisoners will be released,” Schaefer said this week. “That would be the best scenario.”

But if they decide that the case is strong enough, they will set dates for the defense’s rebuttal.

Hailemariam’s daughter, Seyenie Yacob, is traveling from Virginia Beach to Ethiopia for Monday’s proceeding. His wife of 30 years, Tegist, will remain here in her Virginia Beach home. She said she worries about his fate, but “I’m not negative.”

She has relied on Web sites, phone calls and e-mails to family and friends in Ethiopia for news about her husband since his arrest in October 2005. She visited him in September, for about 30 minutes. But it was enough, she said.

“We said all we wanted to say,” she said. “They are busy, too. You don’t want to keep them long.”

When her husband, who is 62, heard Ethiopia announce its first relatively free elections in May 2005, he wanted to be a part of the change.

He retired early from NSU after teaching business law there for almost 20 years, and moved back to the eastern Africa country to campaign for increased democracy. The ruling party imposed restrictions that Hailemariam and others opposed, protests took place and the arrests followed.

Tegist Hailemariam stayed behind because the children were here; a son still attends college.

This week she, like others following the case, spotted a letter online from Yacob Hailemariam addressed to the judges and fellow Ethiopians.

In it, he reiterated his contention that the charges were politically motivated, and that he and others planned to offer no defense to limit the government’s chances to “mislead” Ethiopians “about the truth.”

“If standing for justice, peace and democracy is considered a crime,” he wrote, “we are prepared to accept the court’s verdict whether it is imprisonment or death penalty.”

Maria Lugo, an administrator at NSU, has befriended the family and started a Web site, www.freeyacob.com. She said she can’t imagine what Tegist Hailemariam is going through.

Yacob Hailemariam once led a United Nations tribunal on war crimes in Rwanda. “He always wants to sit at a table and discuss,” his wife said. “He doesn’t like violence.”

She excused herself from an interview – she had to return to her job as a medical laboratory analyst. Life had to go on, even if her thoughts were 7,200 miles away.

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