Justified you are to show ‘news fatigue’ or ‘reading-fatigue’, on the Birtukan Mideksa agenda. You already know what all sides have to say on the issue, since the opposition media had kept it on the headline all along, with an admirable level of creativity. Yet, you have to agree there were genuinely newsworthy events, in the last Ethiopian month Megabit, from the three ‘stakeholders’ of the agenda.
What you shan’t miss is not what they did, but what they didn’t say, on which I will dwell.
Three note-worthy news
Allow me to recall you, albeit briefly, the note-worthy events.
First, on March 11/’10, USA released the ‘2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’. An annual report of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, under under the US State department. Predictably, Birtukan Mideksa was in the section of the report dealing with ‘political prisoners & detainees’, same as the 2008 report. What is new is that the report accused the government for disregarding judicial rulings and alleged that ‘Birtukan’s mental health deteriorated significantly’.
Then, there were news of the UDJ (aka ANDINET) leaders. On March 27/’10, UDJ leaders showed up at the prison for the first time since Birtukan’s arrest. There was also a show-down between them and the officers of the prison, as the� guards refused to let them in. Shortly after, the party vowed to challenge the restriction on visitation, in a court of law. [article continue below…..]
ETV also had a surprise. The national broadcaster aired a footage of Birtukan Mideksa in prison with Pastor Daniel,� director of Prison Fellowship Ministry, on Easter. Ironically, when a foreign correspondent hesitantly proposed foreign media access to the prison, in a press conference two weeks before, the PM categorically dismissed it by saying, ‘No! that will never happen. Because, you don’t have that right in your country.’
Two birds with a stone?
Tactical may be to air a footage of Birtukan costumed as Easter festivity news by disguise of Easter. It appears the government intended to quell reports alleging her illness, without yielding to the pressure for unrestricted visitation to Birtukan Mideksa. The Prime Minister recently asserted that there is no undue restriction with her right to visitation. He explained� that the prison administration is admitting visitors based on a list she provided. In fact, there are credible reports of visitation by a few of her friends and even supporters.
The PM could have provided the legal basis for such administrative discretion, had he been challenged. Yet, there will still be questions. One may legitimately question, why the government chose to place such procedures this time? The prison administration rarely exercised such a discretion. Usually, prisoners are not asked to provide a list of visitors and, apparently, anyone may pay them visit on the fixed visitation days and hours. It is also unlike to the case of Tewodros Kassahun(Teddy Afro), who also had been considered as a ‘political prisoner’ by the foreign lobby. Reportedly, he enjoyed visitation by many members of the entertainment industry during his stay in prison.
The episode is reminiscent of the CUD(‘KINIJIT’) stay in prison, albeit in a few respects. Restriction on visitation were placed, during the detention of the former CUD leaders, in the same prison, charged with inciting the post-poll violence of election 2005. Again, ETV aired a news of ICRC visit to the prison, with a footage showing a couple of well-known personalities among the detained� CUD leaders, when the streets were hit by a rumor of torture and sickness of the detainees.
The rational behind the restriction on visitation was to avoid its ‘illusionary effect’ – an unrealistic hope that their domestic or foreigner supporters might secure their release. That is as the Prime Minister explained, in the context of expounding the elders effort to convince them into signing the Petition for Pardon, at a press conference held on the date of their release. It may also have been intended to limit their ability to guide their followers from prison cell, though the Premier didn’t say that.
If the past is any guide to the current, one can justifiably assume the government is doing the same things, with similar motives and, more importantly, expecting similar outcomes. During the detention of the CUD leaders, several allegedly clandestine letters of the Chairman of CUD surfaced on the internet. Soon followed by the split of the supporters of the party into at least four factions, two at home two abroad, each claiming to be the true successors of the detained leaders. Moreover, the detainees conceded and petitioned for pardon, at last.
In the same fashion, Birtukan’s party is suffering from an irreparable split, with each faction reserving the Presidency for her.� Not to mention an alleged letter by her, criticizing Prof Mesfin, has been circulating on the web, while there are recent media reports claiming that she is shunning those with v/chairman Engineer Gizachew.
Given these, the ruling party may be betting that the restrictions on her are bound to deliver the ultimate prize. That is, she is or will be in a position to grab the first chance the government might offer her to leave the prison. However that may unfold. It is premature to judge the net impact of her inaccessibility at this time. Not until at least, its total effect on herself and on her party becomes evident.
Some of the rationales can be questioned, nonetheless. One may wonder whether these things wouldn’t have happened anyways.
Unrestricted visitation to Birtukan Mideksa is unlikely to change much, if any, in the party. Her supporters may found her charming, but that doesn’t mean they esteem her wisdom so as to rely on her guidance from prison cell. Few, if any, would dare to believe in her ability to make sound decisions based on briefings in visitation hours. In fact, it would be annoying to the half-a-dozen v/Presidents of the party if she continues to call the shots from prison cell. Nor could she have abated the party’s split, as she cant provide a magic solution to the untamed lust for power, which is the the root cause of the division. A chronic disease that continues to haunt all parties being led by former CUD leaders.
In fact, the reported restrictions may have served as a camouflage to those who wouldn’t have visited her anyways. That denies her the opportunity to know the real size of her sympathizers and the level of disarray in the opposition camp. Thereby, letting her continue counting on them for her release.
On the other hand, the Birtukan Mideksa agenda is costing the government in the PR front. The government has yet to come out public with palatable justifications for the placement of solitary confinement and visitation restrictions, since legality don’t make an action appealing to the public. It is recalled how embarrassingly the prison administration performed when the restrictions were challenged in the Federal High Court last year. Moreover, the government is unable or unwilling to enlighten the public about the real level of restriction, thereby to counter exaggerated media reports.
Thus, I ponder, based on my observations so far, whether it is worth it.