Ethiopian officials release an opposition leader who had been jailed for life

By Samson Haileyesus, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ethiopian officials release opposition leader

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian officials on Wednesday released a top opposition leader who had been sentenced to life in prison after the government said she had violated a pardon agreement and sent her back to jail in late 2008.

An Associated Press reporter saw Birtukan Mideksa arrive at her Addis Ababa home Wednesday morning. The single mother and former judge was one of 100 opposition politicians and activists jailed after the 2005 election and charged with treason, but she was later pardoned after signing an agreement.

Officials say she violated the pardon agreement by claiming in a 2008 speech in Sweden that the accord was politically engineered.

Birtukan’s release comes just days after the swearing in of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his fourth five-year term. Meles seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup.

The prime minister’s party won an overwhelming victory in May 2010 elections, knocking out many seasoned opposition legislatures who had represented Birtukan’s party.

The U.S. and European Union expressed concern over the fairness of the election. Opposition leaders also called for a rerun of the elections over claims that opposition observers were turned away and that voters and candidates were intimidated.

Ethiopian election officials said they witnessed no irregularities. Since the last violent elections in 2005, some critics say the government has systematically stifled the competition.

“It’s wonderful news that Birtukan has been released. The bad news is that she should never have been in prison in the first place,” said Leslie Lefkow, one of the authors of an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on Ethiopia.

“We would strongly urge the government to release hundreds of other political prisoners who’ve been arbitrarily arrested,” she said.

Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”

Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally and provides foreign aid. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia’s unstable neighbor to the east.

Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

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