Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa was freed from prison today after the government granted her request to be pardoned from a life sentence she began serving almost two years ago.
“I’m very pleased to be back with my family,” Birtukan, 36, said in an interview at her house in Addis Ababa, the capital. “I’ve been relieved from a difficult situation. The first five months in solitary confinement were very difficult.”
Birtukan was one of the leaders of the now dissolved Coalition for Unity and Democracy, an alliance of opposition parties that claimed victory in Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections. She and dozens of other opposition politicians, journalists and activists were jailed in the aftermath of that vote, during which government security forces killed at least 193 protesters.
Birtukan was jailed for life on Dec. 29, 2008, after a dispute with the government over a pardon agreement that freed her from prison in 2007. Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights group, described her as a prisoner of conscience, according to its website.
Ethiopia is Africa’s biggest coffee producer and the continent’s second-most populous nation, after Nigeria. The Horn of Africa nation’s economy has grown more than 9 percent annually since 2004 and is forecast to expand 9.7 percent this year, according to the African Development Bank’s website.
The Justice Ministry said Birtukan requested an official pardon in a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Sept. 15.
The letter included an apology for previous comments she had made, the ministry said in a statement in Amharic handed to reporters today. After verifying she was the author of the letter, her request for a pardon was granted, it said.
Birtukan confirmed in the interview that she had “asked for a pardon.” She didn’t elaborate.
Meles’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won 545 of the 547 seats in parliamentary elections in May. A European Union observer mission declared that the vote failed to meet certain “international commitments.” The U.S. National Security Council said it was “concerned” about the observers’ findings.
“In the light of the 2010 election and the ending of parliamentary opposition, her release is not going to make much of a difference,” said Sally Healy, a Horn of Africa specialist at Chatham House, a London-based research institute.
Birtukan, who is currently the leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party, wouldn’t comment on what her plans are following her release.
“This is time for my family,” she said while surrounded by family members, colleagues and well-wishers at her home. The Justice Ministry said Birtukan is “not to engage in illegal activity” in future. It didn’t provide any further information about the conditions of her release.
Yesterday, lawmakers in the European Parliament nominated Birtukan as one of the candidates for the 2010 Sakharov Prize, which is given to individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression. Previous recipients of the award, which is named after the Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, include former South African President Nelson Mandela, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We at the European parliament are delighted to hear about Birtukan’s release,” Ana Maria Gomes, an EU lawmaker who led a mission that observed the 2005 vote in Ethiopia, said in an e-mailed statement today. “At the European Parliament, we will continue to support all those who fight for democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia.”