By Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam
“We can’t take it anymore!”
Semayawi Party in Ethiopia has done it again!
This time it is the young women of Semayawi Party who took to the streets of Addis Ababa during the 5k run held as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations on March 9. They spoke; no, they cried out the unvarnished truth to the abusers of power:
“We can’t take it anymore! We are hungry! We need freedom! We need freedom! Free Eskinder! Free Andualem! Free Abubaker! Free Reeyot! Free political prisoners! We need justice! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Don’t divide us! Ethiopia is One! One Ethiopia! We can’t take it anymore! We are hungry…”
I take my hat off to the young women leaders of Semayawi Party. I am so proud of them. Over the past few months, many people questioned why I rose up and enthusiastically supported Semayawi Party. If anyone has questions why I am the #1 cheerleader for Semayawi Party, let them watch this VIDEOand find out.
I cannot in good conscience stand on the sidelines watching when a ruthless regime is clubbing and bludgeoning Ethiopia’s young daughters and sons like baby seals. I will not watch silently when Ethiopia’s young people are jailed, beaten, tortured and abused simply because they exercised their human right to speak. I will be their voice and tell the world about their persecution and suffering.
They protested peacefully. They suffered peacefully. That is what Semayawi Party is all about, suffering for peaceful and nonviolent change. The Semayawi Party young women leaders and members joined the 5k run just like everybody else. They ran and they marched, peacefully. They broke no law. They did not throw a single rock. They assaulted no one. They did not engage in a single scuffle. Not one person out of the thousands of runners suffered injury as a result of their participation (or for no other reason). Not a single piece of property was damaged. Not a single official was threatened or injured. The Semayawi Party women did not even use a single abusive word. They did it all peacefully, gracefully and with class. Those young women were the quintessential definition of pure class! I am so proud of them that my cup runneth over!
The 5k event was sponsored by the regime’s “Ministry of Women, Children & Youth Affairs” as the climax of the International Women’s Day celebrations. The regime’s theme was “Choice Women First 5km Run” (whatever that means). The regime boasted the event would attract over 10,000 women and girls. When the regime put out the call for women participants, it forgot that the dynamic young women leaders of Semayawi Party would also receive the memo. They did. They showed up in yellow T-shirts, but not to be a propaganda prop for the regime. They were there to run. Run for their freedom. Run for Ethiopian national unity. Run to free political prisoners. Run to call attention to the misery and despair of the people. The young Semayawi women displayed not only courage in the face of a regime known for its barbaric brutality but also used stunning creativity to expose the brutality of the regime.
At the end of the 5k run, seven young Semayawi Party women were arrested, beaten and jailed. Among the victims of human rights abuse include Meron Alemayehu, Mignote Mekonnen, Metasebiya Tekle, Weyni Neguse, Negest Wondyfra, Woynshet Molla, and Emebet Girma. Another three young men who hold top Semayawi Party positions, including Getaneh Balcha (Head of Organizational Affairs), Berhanu Tekleyared (Head of Public Relations) and Abel Ephrem (a member of Public Relations Committee) were also jailed when they went to inquire on the condition of the young women detainees.
Daughters of Taitu and Menelik in kangaroo court
I have always said that the regime in Ethiopia operates a kangaroo court system. The “charges” against the Semayawi Party leaders demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that the regime indeed operates a kangaroo court system. The charges against the Semayawi leaders could happen only in the theatre of the absurd. The kangaroo court drama which unfolded during the second “court hearing” on March 14 would have offered theatrical grist to Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet or even Franz Kafka. It was legal drama staged in an irrational and nihilistic justice system invisibly manipulated by faceless, nameless, brainless, conscienceless, feckless and faithless politicians and imposters whose lifeblood is the suffering and misery of their victims. It is a kangaroo justice system where justice is so disfigured it has no face. Justice so mangled it has no body. The face and body of justice in Ethiopia’s kangaroo court is a robotic judge who is remote-controlled and repeats only what he is programmed to say by his masters. The body of justice is represented by thugs in uniform.
According to one observer in the courtroom, a “police inspector” by the name of “Yemata” testified that the Semayawi women were observed engaging in terrorism by publicly shouting that “they are daughters of Tayitu (a 19th Century Ethiopian Empress) and daughters of Emeye Menelik (a 19th Century Ethiopian Emperor and husband of Empress Taitu).” The “inspector” also alleged that the accused shouted in public that they are “hungry and demanded the release of political prisoners and jailed journalists including Reeyot and Eskinder and Andualem and others.” That is the essence of the alleged “terrorist acts” committed by the Semayawi Party women.
The hearing was delayed by over an hour because the Semayawi women had refused to change their T-shirts in jail for their “court” appearance. The police believed allowing them to appear in “court” in their T-shirts would signify political defiance. The police reportedly scuffled with the women to force them to change their T-shirts before making the trip to “court”. The Semayawi young men remained in the holding area until the women were brought in. The “courtroom” was packed with observers and all of the Semayawi Party leadership was present in full force.
The “federal prosecutor” requested that he be given 14 days continuance to investigate and gather evidence while the women remained in jail. (The practice of arresting and jailing a suspect and going out to look for evidence of wrongdoing is the hallmark of the regime’s kangaroo court system. This bizarre pre-trial tactic has been used in every single high profile criminal case over the past decade, including the two dozen or so former officials and businessmen arrested for corruption last year. Their cases remain in limbo as the prosecutor is still looking for evidence of their corruption, even though the regime publicly stated that they had been investigating the case for over two years.)
The prosecutor argued against bail for the Semayawi Party leaders because they “will destroy evidence already in police custody and that they could intimidate and scare witnesses from testifying”. The Semayawi defendants’ attorney, Ato Alemu Gobebo (whose daughter is the jailed and internationally celebrated journalist Reeyot Alemu) argued for bail and pointed out the political nature of the prosecution. He made it clear that his clients are entitled to bail as a matter of law and the prosecution’s opposition was merely a ploy to keep them in jail. The “judge” denied bail and continued the matter. (In a number of previous high profile cases including the “trials” of the Kinijit Party leaders in 2006, the regime has engaged in witness intimidation, bribery, tampering and subornation of perjury.)
According to court observers, the Semayawi women reported being victims of threats and physically assaults in jail by police and security officials. They were also offered large sums of money to become moles and spy on other Semayawi Party leaders. One of the accused, Nigest Wondifraw, told the “court” that the previous night three male police had come to her cell at midnight and ordered her out. One of the officers brandished a stick and threatened to club her to death unless she cooperated. The other women reported similar threats. They also complained that the police humiliated and threatened them with beatings to make them “back down; they hit us to stop our active membership and fellowship in the Blue Party.” The “judge”, described by observers as “clueless”, ordered the police to complete their investigations and return on March 18.
Fight the power in kangaroo court
The arrest and prosecution of the Semayawi Party women is the regime’s first shot across the bow to warn Semayawi Party to stay put and shut up as the so-called 2015 election looms over the horizon. The regime’s message to Semayawi Party is clear and unmistakable. It follows the three act drama written by the late Meles Zenawi’s drama long ago. Act I. Use the kangaroo courts to harass, intimidate, paralyze and incapacitate Semayawi Party, its leaders and members well ahead of the “elections”. That way any additional crackdowns will look “normal” to the public and not appear vindictive. Act II. A few months before the elections, roundup Semayawi Party leaders and members and warehouse them in jail. That should keep the kangaroo courts busier than a “five dollar hooker”, as the old expression goes. Act III. After the “elections”, deja vu 2005!
There are two options in dealing with the legal persecution and lynching of Semayawi Party leaders and members. 1) Shake one’s head in dismay at the kangaroo court proceedings and walk away in disgust. 2) Fight like Kilkenny cats in kangaroo court and defend the rights of the Semayawi Party leaders and members.
The regime is counting on the fact that Ethiopians and others will be so disgusted with the whole kangaroo court charade that they will shake their heads and ignore it, or at best criticize it and move on. They calculate that the Semayawi Party leaders will in time be “forgotten” like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Andualem Aragie, Abubaker Ahmed and the rest. There is little doubt that the regime expects to continue its kangaroo court harassment campaign with maximum effect and efficiency.
The essence of nonviolent struggle is to use the institutions and laws of the oppressor against the oppressor. There should be no mistake. No one is expecting to see even the shadow of justice in the regime’s kangaroo courts. No one suffers under any delusion of getting justice in kangaroo court. We know exactly what is going to happen. The script has already been written; more accurately, the same script used to prosecute (more accurately persecute) previous political defendants has been updated by changing the names and few other details.
We have seen that movie before. The accused Semayawi Party leaders and members will be shuttled back and forth to kangaroo court every few weeks. There will be more delays as the regime’s prosecutor goes out looking for evidence (though that sounds absurd since the running event is over and no additional evidence can be obtained). Requests for bail will be denied, even if it is made a thousand times. The Semayawi Party women will be beaten, mistreated and abused in jail. They will be pressured to rat on each other. They will be offered money and things to sell their souls. They will be offered riches to sell out top Semayawi Party leaders. They will be denied visits by friends, party members and leaders. They will be thrown in solitary confinement. They will be denied medical assistance. Their lives will be made hell on earth in the “stinking jails”, as described by the regime’s own hired expert. The case will drag on straight into the 2015 “elections”. The strategy is simple: Distract, harass, intimidate and sidetrack Semayawi Party leaders and paralyze them from participation in the so-called election.
Regardless of the regime’s script to railroad the Semayawi leaders to prison, there are four compelling reasons why the regime must be challenged and confronted in its own kangaroo courts. First, the regime’s donors and loaners, who make the gross abuses of human rights possible, should be forced to witness their handiwork. This must be done despite the fact that the donors and loaners do not give a rat’s behind about justice or human rights in Ethiopia. Second, the kangaroo trial of the Semayawi Party leaders should itself be a trial of kangaroo courts in kangaroo courts. The regime itself must be put on trial in its own kangaroo courts. Third, the kangaroo court trials must be vigorously contested to make a historical record so that those who sit in judgment (and those who stood behind the curtain manipulating the fingers of those sitting in judgment) today will be judged by their own judgment tomorrow. If those who sit in judgment today think they will forever escape the long arms of justice, let them remember the Nuremberg Trials, the trials in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, the International Criminal Court trial of Charles Taylor and even the local prosecution of Jean Bedel Bokassa and so many others. The tables always turn. Think about it. Always!
We can learn a lot from South African history. In 1964, the Apartheid regime put on trial leaders of the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, and Billy Nair. These seven leaders, like the “Taitu Seven” Semayawi party leaders, did not believe they would get justice in Apartheid kangaroo courts. But they vigorously contested the charges. In doing so, they made history not only for South Africa but also the whole world. The Rivonia Trial of the seven anti-apartheid leaders is today the foundation of justice in South Africa.
Fourth and perhaps most importantly, it is necessary to fight like hell in kangaroo court because that is the only way those who believe in the rule of law can teach in a living and breathing way the criminals who have no respect for the law. Only those who uphold the rule of law have the right to lecture and hector outlaws. A government that disrespects its own laws breeds contempt for itself and the rule of law. Semayawi Party must be second to none in upholding and defending the rule of law.
Support the “Taitu Seven Legal Defense Fund”
I am asking all of my readers to contribute to the “Taitu Seven Legal Defense Fund”. I know there are many who have read my Monday commentaries for years. This is my eight year writing Monday commentaries. I know there are many who disagree with me on everything. I also know I have many, countless many, who agree with me on at least a few things. My appeal is to them. I ask each one of them to help me help the “Taitu Seven” in their trial and tribulations in the kangaroo courts of the regime in Ethiopia. I ask them to make a donation. It does not matter how small. Over the years, I have met thousands of Ethiopians who have told me that they appreciate what I have tried to do. I take no credit for what I have done; if anything, I find myself woefully inadequate in my efforts to improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia.
Exactly seven years ago to the month, I told my readers exactly what I was trying to do in my commentary entitled, “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire: A Diaspora Morality Tale”. I am doing all that I can do. Now I am asking my readers to do what they can do. Imagine hundreds of thousands of humming birds working together to put out a forest fire. The “Taitu Seven” are in the fire pit of a brutal regime. We can watch them burn or we can fight back with them. Contribute the “Taitu Seven Legal Defense Fund.” Show that you care for Ethiopia’s future – its young men and women.
Ask a Semayawi Party woman…
I must confess that I did not agree with Maggie Thatcher, the former British prime minister, on many things. But on her view of women in politics, I have no disagreements. “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” Let’s do something for the young women leaders and members of Semayawi Party.
Run Semayawi women, run…! Keep on running for freedom…