May 13 (Bloomberg) — Ethiopia’s government will ignore foreign and domestic pressure to free opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa from prison and keep her incarcerated beyond this month’s elections, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said.
“We are not in a position to intervene in any legal affair,” Bereket told reporters yesterday in Addis Ababa, the capital, in response to a question about the jailed leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party. “The government has repeatedly declared its position is not to budge to any foreign or local pressure.”
Birtukan, 35, has spent 500 days in prison since she was arrested on Dec. 29, 2008, after the government accused her of violating the terms of a pardon under which she was released in 2007. She was originally jailed on treason charges following protests after Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections. Her continued imprisonment comes amid claims by government critics that the May 23 vote won’t be free and fair.
“The best evidence that these elections cannot be genuine democratic elections is that this woman, who should be running, is unable to do so because she is jailed for life,” Ana Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European parliament who headed the EU’s electoral mission to Ethiopia in 2005, said in a May 11 phone interview.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department labeled Birtukan a political prisoner, and the United Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention.
Her supporters say the former federal judge was jailed because she was the opposition leader most likely to organize a successful nationwide challenge to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has ruled the country since 1991.
“Had she been part of the election, not only the people here but the whole country would have voted for her,” Leulseged Wubeshet, a 23-year-old Birtukan supporter, said from her home neighborhood in northern Addis Ababa. “She’s more popular than the others.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa