Conversation between two grandmothers searching for justice from Ethiopia’s dictator – By Hagere Kibre
The Honourable Carina Hägg, a member of the Swedish Parliament since 1995, is one of the many members of the Swedish Parliament working hard to secure the freedom of the Ethiopian political prisoner Ms Birtukan Midekessa who has been in solitary confinement for more than three months.
The Honourable Hägg arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Wednesday April 8, 2009 to learn about Ms Birtukan’s situation and to discuss with government officials about her detention and freedom. The Honourable Hägg decided to travel to Ethiopia after hearing Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s description of the extremely harsh condition under which the leader of UDJ, the strongest opposition party, is detained. Professor Mesfin was at the time addressing the Swedish parliament on the political state in East Africa at the invitation of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. Also, attending a discussion between Professor Mesfin and Ethiopians living in Sweden provided the MP further details on some issues that prompted her to decide to go to Ethiopia.
After arriving in Addis, the Honourable Hägg did not head to her hotel to leave her luggage and refresh herself. Instead she went straight to meet with the elderly mother of Ms Birtukan, Ms Almaz, to hear directly from her about Ms Birtukan and her daughter Hale as well as how Ms Almaz is coping with the re-incarceration of her heroine daughter.
Ms Almaz welcomed the parliamentarian and others with her expressing gratitude for their support. Following is a conversation that took place between these two grandmothers.
Ms Hägg: How is Birtukan?
Ms Almaz: Well what can I tell you? She is caged in like a beast. She is locked in alone in a tiny room day and night.
Ms Hägg: What does she say?
Ms Almaz: She says that she is OK. She worries about us instead.
Ms Hägg: You should be proud. You have a very brave daughter.
Ms Almaz: It would have been meaningful if she was able to work for her people and country. It is sad that she remains confined in a jail. It is pointless to have a human being kept in a narrow room denied contact with others. I feel like she is in a grave.
Ms Hägg: Since she is a wise and educated woman, she can think even when she is alone.
Ms Almaz: What is the value of thinking alone if you cannot share your thoughts with others? I also do not know how she can think locked in a dark room.
Ms Hägg: What does Hale say?
Ms Almaz: She misses her mother. These days when it is time to leave after spending the very brief time she is allowed to be with her mother, after taking a couple of steps from the prison she turns back and screams Birtu!!! [While saying this, both grandmothers were fighting back their tears.]
Ms Hägg: My granddaughter is also four years old and she lives with me.
Ms Almaz: That is very good. But my daughter is in jail and my granddaughter yearns for her mother. She sees her only twice a week for 30 minutes. Even before she gets satisfied kissing her mother, they tell us to leave saying it is enough. Your granddaughter can see her mother anytime she wishes to. But Hale cannot do that.
Ms Hägg: We will do everything possible.
Ms Almaz: Yes, please continue with your effort. A lot has been done for us already. But please continue with your great effort.
At the end of this brief conversation, Ms Almaz served breakfast and coffee to the visitors and bade them farewell.
Prior to going to Ethiopia, the Honourable Carina Hägg went to the Ethiopian Embassy in Stockholm, and explained the purpose of her trip to Ethiopia. But the Embassy officials told her to stay home saying that no government official will be willing to meet with her. However, the MP declared that Ms Birtukan’s cause is a concern to all women of the world and cannot be left as a personal concern of Ms Birtukan. She headed to Addis stating nothing would make her cancel her trip and in fact she will encourage others to follow her foot steps and struggle to secure Ms Birtukan’s freedom.
The same day the Honourable Hägg arrived in Ethiopia she met with Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw, Vice Chairperson of the UDJ party and she also met with Mr Seye Abreha, a former Minister of Defence in the Meles Zenawi government who was also imprisoned by Meles for several years.
Engineer Shiferaw explained to the MP the unjust and illegal nature of Ms Birtukan’s detention. He explained how the entire process from the start to the current state under which his party’s leader is detained violates the rights citizens have under the constitution. He also stated that their request to hold a peaceful demonstration, a right enshrined in the constitution, was repeatedly denied under different pretexts. He concluded by saying that all these things point to the dangerously disappearing political space in the country.
When Mr Seye Abreha met with the Honourable Hägg, he underscored the utmost respect Ms Birtukan has for justice and that he believes her detention has nothing to do with the law and disagreement around clemency and that it is completely politically motivated. Breaking of the law and denying being given clemency, which the government uses as an excuse for her incarceration, is just a cover. He also said that it is important to look back the election of 2005 and the impact the result of that election had on the leadership. There is nothing that indicates any violation of the law in her statement which she called my words or kale. The government needed to give a legal cover for her politically motivated detention, and conveniently they accused her of breaking the law. Breaking of the law is unthinkable with Ms Birtukan. The truth is that the issue has always been political.
Mr Seye concluded by saying when a young educated woman becomes the only female political leader, she can mobilize the youth and the women to stand on her side. This scares the ruling party, therefore they manufactured the charge claiming that she has broken the law. This is sad.
 Sources for the Amharic version: http://www.abugidainfo.com/amharic/?p=1246
 The Honourable Hägg is a member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and her party’s representative for foreign affairs, her party’s candidate for the next European Union Parliament and currently Sweden’s vice councillor at the EU Parliament.
 Professor Mesfin Woldermariam is the founding chairman of the first independent human rights organization in Ethiopia www.ehrco.org. He was also jailed with Ms Birtukan and the other leaders of CUD for almost two years before the government of PM Meles Zenawi was forced to release them under intense international pressure. When Ms Birtukan was illegally detained on the street of Addis Ababa over three months ago, the 78 year old Professor Mesfin was beaten by the security forces for asking why they were manhandling Ms Birtukan. http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/9505.html
 Ms Birtukan has been in solitary confinement in a tiny rodent and insect infested room denied all visitation rights. She does not have access to her lawyer, doctors, or friends and other prisoners.
 All of the effort the Honourable Hägg made to meet with Birtukan and Ethiopian government officials has failed because government offices were not willing to cooperate. The MP has promised to give high importance to this and seek solution once she is back in her country.