Thus spoke Reeyot Alemu to the Voice of America- Amharic Service on July 9, 2015, a few hours after she was literally thrown out of the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality (Ethiopia’s “Robben Island”), on the outskirts of Addis Ababa:“I will continue to fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.”
Reeyot served 4 years and 17 days (that is 1,480 days) in prison on a 14-year sentence commuted to 5 years. She was convicted under a so-called terrorism law enacted by the late Meles Zenawi and his gang, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF).
The great Nelson Mandela warned his apartheid oppressors, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” That was pretty much Reeyot’s message to the tyrannical apartheid-style thugtatorship of the TPLF. “I will continue my struggle until democracy and justice prevail in Ethiopia.”
La luta continua!
Mandela also said, “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” On July 9, fresh out of Meles Zenawi Prison, Reeyot showed her uncompromising commitment to democracy and justice in Ethiopia. But that came at a very high price. For four years and seventeen days, Reeyot faced daily humiliation, solitary confinement, degradation and dehumanization in Meles Zenawi Prison.
But she persevered.
For four years and seventeen days, Reeyot remained captive in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, that “pit of wrath and tears”. She faced the horror of abuse and mistreatment in prison without “wincing or crying out loud.”
She remained patient.
For four years and seventeen days, Reeyot survived in Meles Zenawi Prison with her head “bloodied, but unbowed.”
CRITICAL VOICE LOST TO ETHIOPIA’S WAR ON INFORMATION
Reeyot Alemu has been imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than a year, branded as a terrorist. She is one of many journalists who have been arrested, interrogated and threatened in her country. What makes Alemu exceptional are her commitment to work for independent media when the prospect of doing so became increasingly dangerous, her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom. In jail, Alemu was offered clemency if she agreed to testify against journalist colleagues. She refused and was sent to solitary confinement for 13 days as punishment for her failure to cooperate. She is currently being kept at Kality prison, which is known for its filthy conditions. Recently, she has fallen ill; in April of this year she underwent surgery at nearby hospital to remove a tumor from her breast, after which she was returned to jail with no recovery time.
“I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future,” Alemu said in an earlier interview with the IWMF. “Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.” Alemu said one of her “principles” is “to stand for the truth, whether it is risky or not.”
To work for free media in Ethiopia is indeed a risk. The country has the second-highest number of imprisoned journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after notoriously oppressive Eritrea. Late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly attacked non-state members of the press, calling them “messengers” of terrorist groups. Increasingly, “terrorist” is a label attached to any entity with an opinion on politics, social issues or human rights that does conform to government rhetoric. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, Alemu worked for numerous, often short-lived independent publications. At least four news outlets to which she contributed were forced out of business by the Ethiopian government. Her reporting explored the root causes of poverty, lack of balance in national politics and gender equality. In 2010, she founded her own publishing house and a monthly magazine called Change, both of which were shuttered.
In the months prior to her arrest, Alemu was slandered in government-run media for her reporting, a common tactic to intimidate journalists. According to a colleague, Alemu also received threatening phone calls. “Reeyot was able to speak about issues even the most mature and outspoken political opposition leaders were unable to voice,” said a friend of Alemu’s who works at an Addis University. “Until this day, she has…faced up to the challenges that many have bowed down to.”
Alemu taught English classes at an Addis high school. She gave part of her salary to her students from poor families. It was at the school that she was arrested in June 2011. Her home was raided by police and a number of her personal documents were seized. At the time, she was working as a columnist for independent daily newspaper Féteh.
For more than a week, Alemu was held with no indication as to why she was detained. Then, a government spokesman announced at a press conference that Alemu was one of nine people suspected of organizing terrorism. The terrorist group they were accused of abetting was unnamed and specific crimes were not cited. It was two months before Alemu and another journalist in the group of nine were formally charged.
Alemu is one in a number of journalists who have been prosecuted under the vaguely worded and broad-reaching anti-terrorism laws passed by the Ethiopian legislature in 2009. The laws allow for the arrest of anyone thought to “encourage” parties labeled as terrorists.
Under this law, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined 33,000 birrs (about $1,850). Prior to her arrest, she made less than $100 per month at her teaching job and little more as a reporter. During her trial, government prosecutors presented articles Alemu had written criticizing the prime minister, as well as telephone conversations she had regarding peaceful protests, as evidence against her. In August 2012, an appeals court subsequently reduced the 14-year prison sentence to 5 years and dropped most of the terrorism charges against her.
The Ethiopian government has effectively limited media coverage to topics friendly to the ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), which holds more than 99% of seats in parliament. It has done this through charges of treason and terrorism levied against reporters and free media, public criticism of journalists and passage of laws that punish sources of information about opposition political parties and questions of human rights.
Alemu was willing to risk her freedom to challenge the standard explanations, or failure to explain, the systemic decay in her country. According to her friends and colleagues, she thought she could make a difference in the trajectory of her people; she thought her work might make things better. And now she has been silenced, like so many others.
“She is a person who has a bright vision for her country,” said a friend and former colleague based in Addis. “But, she is in prison.”
Reeyot faced the “menace of the years” in Meles Zenawi Prison, but she remained unafraid. Unafraid because she was and is the “mistress of her fate and captain of her soul.”
It was for Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta, Zone 9 bloggers and so many other political prisoners like them that William Ernest Henley wrote his poem “Invictus” (Unconquered) generations ago:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
RELEASE OF 4 OF THE ZONE 9 BLOGGERS
The TPLF regime also released five young bloggers and journalists held at the Meles Zenawi Prison. They had been held in illegal pretrial detention for over one year.
In writing about the Zone 9 bloggers, the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Ethiopian government officials accuse the Zone 9 bloggers of working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in Ethiopia. The group wrote about political repression and social injustice, and their blogs were frequently blocked inside the country.”
On July 8, the TPLF regime dropped all charges and literally threw them out of Meles Zenawi Prison. They were not even given the chance to say good bye to their friends with whom they have been imprisoned for over a year. The released bloggers and journalists include Zelalem Kibret, Mahlet Fantahun, Tesfalem Wadyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis and Edom Kassaye. They said they were baffled over their release and continued incarceration of their fellow bloggers and journalists facing the same charges.
Well, that is one of the mystifying mysteries of the TPLF’s monkey court justice system.
ETHIOPIA HAS REEYOT ALEMU
All nations are blessed from time to time with she-roes (heroines). The Americans have many heroes, and fewer she-roes. Many of America’s she-roes are unsung. American she-ro Harriet Tubman in the 1850s led the resistance against slavery by setting up an “underground railroad”, which consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses for slaves escaping to freedom.
Susan B. Anthony in the early 1870s led the suffragist movement advocating for the right of American women to vote, to own property and even become members of labor organizations. Rosa Parks, whom the United States Congress called “the first lady of civil rights”, and the mother of the American Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s sparked the struggle for freedom, equality and justice by a simple act of defiant civil disobedience. She refused to give up her seat and sit in the back of the bus.
“No, I shall not be moved!”, she told the segregationist police and (in)justice system. Millions of African Americans soon joined her singing:
“We shall not be moved! / Just like a tree that’s standing by the water/ The union is behind us,/ We’re fighting for our freedom,/ We’re fighting for our children,/ We’ll building a mighty union,/ Black and white together,/ Young and old together,/ We shall not, we shall not be moved/We shall not, we shall not be moved.”
African American women were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. But they remain the unsung she-roes. Eleanor Roosevelt, the mother of the modern human rights movement, was singularly responsible for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the bedrock document which has served as the foundation for all post-WW II human rights conventions.
In my view, Reeyot Alemu belongs to this group of revolutionaries, better yet, history-changers, women of courage and convictions who were ready to pay the ultimate price for justice, equality, civil and human rights without batting an eye.
THE TRUTH TELLER
Reeyot has been called “Ethiopia’s Truth Teller”. When the modern history of Africa is written and names are inscribed in the African Hall of Fame, across from the ignoble African Hall of Shame, Reeyot’s name will be registered at the very top in the category, “Grace Under Fire.”
Reeyot Alemu faced the fire and brimstone of Meles Zenawi for four years and 17 days. On July 9, we saw a young woman radiant with steely resolve walk out of Meles Zenawi Prison and declare to the world: “I will continue to fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.”
The TPLF thugs tried to break every bone in her body to make her kneel before them.
They threw her into solitary confinement to crush her spirit and extinguish her hopes.
They denied her medical care as she battled a potentially life-threatening illness.
They denied her womanity and humanity.
They tried to execute her soul.
They did all they could in that “place of wrath and tears” known as Meles Zenawi Prison.
But they could not break Reeyot.
They could not crack her mind.
They could not shatter her spirit.
They could not destroy her will to survive;
To stand up proud and tall and say to the world:
“I will continue to fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.”
Minutes before her TPLF captors literally threw her out of Meles Zenawi Prison, she told them like it is. They should not let her out because she is going to continue her struggle where she left off four years earlier.
Reeyot warned the TPLF thugs, “If you are letting me go to bring me back when I tell the public that I was released without asking for a pardon, I would rather stay. If you lie about my release, I will tell the truth.”
On numerous occasions, Reeyot’s captors had offered her freedom in exchange for her signature on an application form begging for pardon.
She told them to take it and shove it.
They used to call Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher “The Iron Lady.”
If she were alive, I would have said, “Move over Maggie! Make way for Reeyot!”
WHY DID THEY RELEASE REEYOT AND THE OTHER BLOGGERS AND JOURNALISTS?
The TPLF thugs did not let Reeyot go out of concern for justice or the “goodness of their hearts” (indulge me in an oxymoron because thugs have neither goodness nor hearts).
No doubt, they gnashed their teeth and bellyached as they let her go. They would have much preferred to see her go out feet first in a wooden coffin and explain to the world she died from some dreadful disease. Fate was not on the side of the TPLF this time.
They did it to save face and impress President Obama when he shows up later this month.
They did it to make Obama look good. They don’t want Obama’s visit to be about Reeyot and the other imprisoned journalists and political prisoners.
Imagine Obama answering the following question: “Mr. President, would you go and visit Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, the zone 9 bloggers and the thousands of political prisoners waiting for you at Meles Zenawi Prison? They are just a dozen kilometers away. Would you go visit them, please?”
The TPLF thugs will put on their designer suits and put on a show to make Obama believe they are not the evil monsters they are depicted to be by the international human rights organizations.
Not to worry.
The TPLF thugs have their guardian angels – the Trinity of Susan Rice, Gayle Smith and Wendy Sherman – on watch during the entire visit. To use a military metaphor, they will be on “DEFCON 1” alert. Keep a lookout for a circular halo with three butterfly-looking creatures hovering on the heads of the TPLF thugs.
REEYOT WAS NEVER ALONE
Reeyot Alemu was never alone when she languished for 4 years and 17 days in Meles Zenawi Prison.
She was cut off from her family, friends and relatives.
Only her mother and father were allowed to see her. (Her father who was also her lawyer was not allowed legal visits.)
But she was never alone.
She had thousands of people around the world who loved and supported her. They were with her in mind and spirit the entire time.
She had her young and ferocious advocates on Facebook and social media.
She was never alone.
She had her friends who toiled to nominate her for prestigious international press awards.
She was never alone.
There were countless others like me who took her cause, and the cause of all jailed Ethiopian journalists and heroes, including the incomparable Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta, Zone 9 bloggers and so many other political prisoners like them, as their personal mission.
It was a privilege for me to defend Reeyot in the court of international public opinion every chance I got.
I wrote numerous commentaries on Reeyot specifically or as part of the plight of Ethiopian journalists and the crimes against humanity perpetrated against them.
In my May 2012 commentary, “Reeyot Alemu: Young Heroine of Ethiopian Press Freedom”, I explained why Reeyot was incarcerated.
Reeyot and her co-defendant Woubshet Taye were arrested in June 2011 and accused of plotting to sabotage telephone and electricity. For months, they were held incommunicado. Not even their lawyers could visit them.
The real reason for Reeyot’s arrest was an article she wrote in the June 17 issue of a weekly magazine called “Feteh” (Justice), which was subsequently shuttered. In her article, Reeyot questioned and criticized the late Meles Zenawi’s harebrained public fundraising campaign for the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam white elephant.
In September 2011, Meles personally ordered that Reeyot and Woubshet be charged with “conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization”. The so-called evidence of “conspiracy” against Reeyot in Meles Zenawi’s kangaroo (monkey) court consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists.
Reeyot and Woubshet had no access to legal counsel during their three months in pretrial detention.
Both were denied counsel during interrogations.
The TPLF kangaroo court adjudicating their case refused to investigate their allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in detention.
In her first interview upon release, Reeyot confirmed that she was denied consultations with her lawyers for nearly two years after she was sentenced.
In my October 2012 commentary, “[url=http://ecadforum.com/2012/10/28/ethiopias-reeyot-the-price-for-my-courage/Ethiopia’s Reeyot: ‘The Price for My Courage’[/url]”, I tried to show the world the true meaning of the expression “grace under fire.”
In her secretly smuggled out hand written letter to be read at the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) when she won that the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award, Reeyot assured the world that no price is high enough to keep her from being “the voice of the voiceless”. She knew and accepted the fact that she would have to pay a high price to pay for her courage.
Reeyot reaffirmed her conviction the day she was released on July 9, 2015. She declared she is prepared to pay whatever price is asked of her to make sure democracy and justice prevailed in Ethiopia. Reeyot taught me, and I hope all her supporters, the practical meaning of the word “courage”.
When Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, themselves jacked up on bogus terrorism charges by the late Meles Zenawi in June 2011, first met Reeyot, she sat handcuffed in a prison bus headed to Magistrate’s Court.
“What do you do?” asked Schibbye.
Reeyot replied, “I am a journalist, we are not alone, we are many political prisoners here accused for terrorism”, pointing to the prison cells.
Reeyot told Schibbye, “If you are released, tell the world I am not a terrorist but a journalist working for the truth.”
Schibbye observed, “All these young Ethiopian journalists faced a choice. They are intelligent and well educated, they could have chosen an easy life, they could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth, for their country, for their fellow human beings and to Ethiopia made them into journalists.”
Reeyot was never alone.
Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta, Zone 9 bloggers and so many other political prisoners like them and so many other political prisoners like them in Ethiopia are not alone. We are with them in mind and spirit every second of the day.
Reeyot had very influential friends.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) pursued her case relentlessly over the years, as it has the cases of all other imprisoned journalists.
The CPJ “condemned Ethiopia’s repeated use of sweeping terrorism laws to censor independent reporting.”
The CPJ tried to enlighten the benighted tyrants of Ethiopia that “the government may not like reporters talking to groups it deems to be terrorist organizations, but that’s what journalists do. Anything less would just make them mouthpieces. The authorities must drop these ridiculous charges immediately and release our colleagues.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) was with Reeyot all along.
HRW condemned the idiocy of the charges against Reeyot and Woubshet. “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”, objected HRW.
Amnesty International was with Reeyot and blasted the TPLF kangaroo court proceedings against her. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Pambazuka News supported an advocacy campaign for her release. Pambazuka proclaimed, “Her principled stance for truth and justice in defiance of government and injustice, has earned her international accolades.”
The Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of the 2012 International Women’s Media Foundation’s Award (IWMF), which celebrates courageous women journalists, defended Reeyot: “Reeyot Alemu missed an important dinner engagement in Beverly Hills. But she had a good excuse. The 31-year-old journalist is jailed in the notoriously brutal, rodent-infested Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. She’s two years into a five-year sentence for daring to write about poverty, opposition politics and gender equality.”
Reeyot also had her brothers batting in her corner. Elias Wondimu, publisher ofTsehai Publishers accepted the IWMF award on Reeyot’s behalf. In his acceptance speech Elias said, “When I nominated Reeyot for the Award, I wanted to show the face of courage in her, so that girls in our country will not be discouraged from becoming a voice to the voiceless. How on earth can we compare a person who criticizes a government’s policy through writing and accuse them of being terrorists?”
Elias offered an alternative. “Due to lack of proper training, our journalists are not and cannot be perfect, but the way to remedy this should not be criminalizing their perceived mistakes, but to correct and educate them.”
But Reeyot’s hand written message smuggled out of Meles Zenawi Prison anddelivered to the IWMF told the story of true journalistic courage. She scribbled on a scrap of paper the following words:
“I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future [in Ethiopia]. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles. Because journalism is a profession that I am willing to devote myself to. I know for EPRDF, journalists must be only propaganda machines for the ruling party. But for me, journalists are the voices of the voiceless. That’s why I wrote many articles which reveal the truth of the oppressed ones.
“Shooting the people who march through the streets demanding freedom and democracy; jailing the opposition party leaders and journalists … preventing freedom of speech, association and the press; corruption and domination of one tribe are some of the bad doings of our government. I knew that I would pay the price for my courage [to report] and I was ready to accept that price.”
In 2013, Reeyot was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. In awarding her the Prize, UNESCO stated, “Ms Alemu was recommended by an independent international jury of media professionals in recognition of her ‘exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.’”
REEYOT’S INTERVIEW WITH VOA, JULY 9, 2015
Reeyot Alemu was interviewed by VOA Amharic Service reporter Solomon Abate on July 9, 2015. (The English translation below is mine. I have tried to present Reeyot’s words to my readers as accurately as I can, preserving not only the semantics but also any metaphors and vernaculars. )
SOLOMON: Reeyot Alemu, Congratulations [on your release from prison] and returning home.
REEYOT: It is good to find you well.
SOLOMON: There are lots of people who are happy that you are released [from prison]. At what time were you released?
REEYOT: I think it was around 10 o’clock, but I did not check the time.
SOLOMON: In the morning?
SOLOMON: How were you released? What did they tell you? Did you know in advance you were going to be released?
REEYOT: I did not know. They just came to me and said [go]. I thought it was a joke. I asked them why and for what reason I am being released. They just said, “Get out!” Because I am aware of what they do with others [prisoners], I asked them why, for what reason am I being released. If you should tell [dubious] stories about my release, you know it is inevitable I am going to tell the truth. Therefore, if you are going to return me [to prison after I tell the truth], I would rather not be released.
Then I asked them, “What’s going on?” They said, “it’s just it.” [I told them] I did not ask for pardon or parole. The time for my pardon request has passed and [I rejected it] because there was language in the [pardon] application form which said, “I have been rehabilitated.” I did not want to fill out that form [admitting wrongdoing] and be released.
I should have been released in November . They said my time for release on parole has passed. Therefore, we are releasing you. That is the short answer they gave me. That is the basis for my release.
SOLOMON: By the way, how is your health?
REEYOT: I had surgery on one of my breasts a couple years ago as you all know. The other breast still has a lump [tumor]. They said it needs surgery. Because I did not want to have surgery [in prison], because I had surgery [on the other breast] before and there were some complications, I did not do it. Now, if God wills it, I will have it done.
SOLOMON: What is the [clinical prognosis] on both of your breasts?
REEYOT: One of them is a little better. The other is painful from time to time.
SOLOMON: Didn’t you get regular medical consultations and attention, other than what you have told me? Were you getting close [medical] attention?
REEYOT: It was never like that.
SOLOMON: It could be daily, weekly [medical consultations]? It could be [medical] consultations or examination.
REEYOT: No. It was never like that. As I said, after I declined the surgery, I did not [seek medical attention] except for things like sinuses. I did not [seek medical care]. Even if I did it was useless because I was told to have surgery and I said, “No”. I had already decided not to have surgery. I did not think consultations were needed. As I said, I [got medical attention] a month ago. I did not talk to them about the issues regarding my breasts.
SOLOMON: Could you tell me a little bit about your situation in prison? Forgive me, I don’t want to take you back to that, but there are a lot of people listening who want to know about that.
REEYOT: Yes. I don’t know how to tell you that. It is different depending on the type of prisoner. Generally speaking, it cannot be said that the treatment of prisoners is good.
But political prisoners in a special way are treated exceptionally not well. If you take my [case], I did not see my family for approximately 1 year and 8 months. I was allowed to see only my mother and father. It is just in the past three months that my sister was allowed to visit me.
So beginning with my family visits [my rights were not respected]. What the law says is that I have a right to meet my religious advisor, my lawyers and other persons. As I said, it is only in the past 2 or 3 months that even my sister could visit me. For 1 year and 8 months, only my mother and father were the only ones allowed to visit me.
There were many problems [in prison]. For instance, books. To get books especially on politics, even a book with the word “politics” in it, especially now, was very difficult. That is [getting] books from outside. I can mention many other things. My time [in prison] was not good at all. Prison is never good. It was dreadful [for me].
SOLOMON: Your father was your lawyer?
REEYOT: Yes my father was my lawyer and I had another lawyer.
SOLOMON: Did you get to see your father as your lawyer and not the other lawyer?
REEYOT: No. I was not able to get both of them. For the past 2 years, I could not have contact with anybody. My father and mother came to visit me in prison. But my father could not come for legal consultations. We could not talk about my legal issues. Nor could I get any other lawyer to do that [legal consultations].
SOLOMON: What was the sanitations situation in prison, the food, the water and similar things?
REEYOT: I ate food provided to me by my family. I have seen the prison food. It is not something you call “good.” It is bad. Even the injera and wot [traditional Ethiopian dishes] given to those who committed crimes or us [political prisoners], it was awful.
SOLOMON: When Ethiopian authorities are asked about political prisoners, the answer they give is that “there are no political prisoners”.
REEYOT: That is a boldfaced lie. I know many political prisoners [there]. I can even tell you about myself; my case offers sufficient evidence of the [existence of political prisoners]. What crime did I commit to be imprisoned? Perhaps you may have followed my trial. If so, you can understand from the proceedings and evidence, I did not commit or attempt to commit the terrorism they alleged I committed.
The plain and manifest thing is that I was imprisoned because I wrote [critical things about the regime]. But to say that there are no political prisoners [when] there are those imprisoned for writing something or someone for becoming a member of [an opposition political party] or someone for demanding his rights, it is the answer [excuse] they use to deny that. But I think there are only a few people they can fool with that answer.
SOLOMON: What is the situation of other individuals in prison with you? What is their treatment, their spirit, their feelings? In general, how is the prison situation [where you were]?
REEYOT: For a person who committed a crime and is imprisoned and an innocent person who is imprisoned, it is necessary to respect and protect their fundamental rights even as prisoners. That is the way it should be.
The existing situation beginning with the food situation is bad, especially now when prisoners are being brought [in large numbers] and [creating] overcrowding.
In the situation I was in in the past 2 years, I was with 4 other prisoners separated [from the general population]. But other prisoners throughout are kept in severely overcrowded conditions. The situation with medicine, medical treatment, it cannot be said it is at all adequate.
There are no [medical] examinations. You get an examination when you are extremely sick, but other than that, they just write you prescriptions for pain killers. That is the situation by and large.
[On the other hand], if there is a prisoner who attempts to exchange greetings with political prisoners, he will face a lot of problems. It is a tense place. It is a place where fear is king [fear-ridden] even compared to the outside. That is what you see [inside the prison].
SOLOMON: When you say a lot of problems, what kinds of problems are there? Are physical injuries inflicted? Beatings and other things?
REEYOT: What I am telling is about the situation of women prisoners.
SOLOMON: I would like you to tell me about that in greater detail. What is the situation of women prisoners and the treatment they face? Are they subjected to mistreatment?
Reeyot: Yes. That is what I am telling you. One of the things is that just because someone offers greetings [to a political prisoner], he should not have to face problems. But if he is seen exchanging greetings with a political prisoner, he could get a warning or the [prison authorities] may take that into special consideration about the prisoner. He may be placed under special surveillance or such. You see things like that [in prison].
SOLOMON: What are your future plans? In short, what is your general outlook? What are you thinking about doing after this?
REEYOT: As I said, this is a sudden release so there is a difference when you are released having done your time or when you are aware of your impending release.
So when you are suddenly released, this question becomes different.
But what I am thinking now is to continue with my life where I left off, to continue what I was doing before.
For instance, whatever struggle I was doing , and it could be in writing – in whatever way I can – I will fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.
[End of interview.]
MY PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO REEYOT AND HER OTHER BROTHERS AND SISTERS WHO REMAIN IN PRISON
Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”
I think the same can be said of heroes and she-roes.
Citizens like Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta, Zone 9 bloggers and so many other political prisoners like them in prison in Ethiopia were not born heroes and she-roes. They did not seek heroism. If given the chance, they would rather leave heroism alone. But heroism and she-roeism would not leave them alone. Fate and fortune had thrust heroism upon them.
I see a lot of parallels between Reeyot and Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history. Birtukan faced the same mistreatment , isolation and degradation. Birtukan was a trail blazer not only in politics, but also a role model for young Ethiopian women. She taught them the art of perseverance in Meles Zenawi Prison.
Birtukan must be proud today to look over her shoulder, see Reeyot and pass on the baton in the relay for democracy and justice in Ethiopia. I bet she will smile and pat herself on the back for being an example of “grace under fire”.
Meles Zenawi, the man singularly responsible for the incarceration of Reeyot and Birtukan will be remembered in history not only the apotheosis of evil, but also a miserable and wretched human being. “Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of Meles Zenawi!”
When these courageous young Ethiopian journalists met the defining moment of their lives, unlike the vast majority of us, they did not flinch.
Eskinder Nega did not cringe when he was handed 18 years for writing his blog.
Reeyot Alemu did not grovel when the kangaroo judge sentenced her to 14 years.
Woubshet Taye did not beg the TPLF thugs to restore his freedom.
Temesgen Desalegn did not offer to sell his soul for his freedom.
Abraha Desta did not cut and run.
In his very last Facebook post on July 7, 2014, before being jailed by the TPLF, Abraha Desta vigorously defended the freedom of expression of the TPLF itself on his own Facebook page! “The reason I do not unfriend or block TPLF cadres on my Facebook is because I believe it is important for us to know the intellectual depravity and bankruptcy of the TPLF.”
All of the courageous Ethiopian journalists and political prisoners accepted their fate with a stiff upper lip.
They did not back down.
They stood their ground.
They chose to live free in prison than live in fear and bondage in an open air prison under the rule of ignorant bush thugs.
Wendy Sherman said, “Ethiopia is a young democracy.” In a way she is right, but her timing is off.
When Reeyot and her generation take over, that will mark Ethiopia as a true young democracy. I wonder what Reeyot’s contribution to Ethiopian democracy might have been over the past 4 years and 17 days if she was not languishing in Meles Zenawi Prison.
I salute Ethiopia’s first sons Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta and all of the other imprisoned journalists, bloggers and political prisoners.
I salute Ethiopia’s first daughter and MY Ethiopian she-ro, REEYOT ALEMU!
May she live long and continue her struggle!
“I will fully struggle to make Ethiopia a good place where democracy and justice prevail. Until I can see such an Ethiopia, I will continue my struggle.” Reeyot Alemu, July 9, 2015.