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Birtukan Midekssa

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Birtukan Midekssa is a former federal judge and leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Ethiopia.

Hailed as the Aung San Suu Kyi of her country, she was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections. After eighteen months in prison, she was pardoned in 2007 following a series of high-level negotiations. Upon her release, she founded the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) and was elected its first chairperson. In 2008, she was rearrested for allegedly having violated the terms of her pardon and remained in prison for almost two more years. In 2010, she was shortlisted for the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Prior to entering politics, Ms. Midekssa served as a defense attorney and federal judge, rendering numerous court decisions in support of the rule of law and in defense of fundamental constitutional liberties. She drew the ire of the Ethiopian government when she presided as a judge in a high profile corruption case involving the former defense minister, Siye Abraha. Ms. Midekssa released Abraha for lack of evidence, but the government immediately rearrested him and sent him to jail for seven years. The government’s contempt for the rule of law helped motivate Birtukan Midekssa to become active in politics.

She was selected as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow for 2011-2012 at the National Endowment for Democracy and as a Scholar at Risk Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University for 2012 - 2013. 

Even now, you may not find, you know, too many judges or attorneys in the legal sphere in Ethiopia. But in my town, it was more so. And actually, in my career, I had the chance to deal with some very political sensitive cases. So the way I handled and the way people took it – one of the factors which has, you know, arisen to – in a way, to admire me, was that, you know, I was a woman, you know, to, you know, to stick to legal principles and handle cases with, you know, ethical and professional manner.

So people gave me such admiration, not only because I was committed to my professional principles, but because I was a woman as well. After I joined law school, you know, the more I learned about justice, civil liberties, and, you know, how, you know, legal professional – how legal institution could serve, you know, in establishing a society with tenets of justice, equality and human dignity, that is really an inspiration and, you know, it gave me a huge passion.

And I was full of excitement to join the judiciary at some point, and to give some kind of public service to my community, to the public. So immediately after I graduated I applied to join the federal court, and initially I was hired as an assistant for a judge, or you might consider it as a clerk, and I served – I worked in that position for two years or so, then immediately we got recruited and, you know, the parliament approved the assignment of some of those fresh graduates from the law school to be a judge in the first instance court. So that was really, you know, a moment of excitement and, you know, a moment of passion for me. 

With a population of nearly 85 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. The population includes some 80 ethnic groups, with the largest being the Oromo and the Amhara. The majority of the population is Christian, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, but there is also a significant Muslim minority.

The Ethiopian economy is based primarily on agriculture, with a growing services sector and one of the largest GDP growth rates in Africa in recent years. Main industries include food processing and textiles, and the most important export goods are coffee and gold. While unemployment is high and the country has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world, the current government has instituted economic reforms and begun a process of privatization of state enterprises.

Until 1974, Ethiopia was a monarchy, ruled by a dynasty that traced its roots to the 2nd century B.C. Unlike most of the African continent, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power and has long been recognized as a sovereign country.

The downfall of the monarchy led to the establishment of a socialist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Mengistu regime received significant aid from the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. Ethiopia suffered a series of internal and external conflicts, calamitous droughts, massive famines, and refugee crises during the 1970s and 1980s. The Mengistu regime was a harsh dictatorship with little tolerance for dissent. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 10,000 people died under what has been called the “Red Terror,” although the exact number is unknown.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposition groups united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They ousted the Mengistu regime in May 1991. A new constitution and political reforms led to the first multiparty elections in 1995. Over time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF tightened their grip on power by promoting ethnic federalism through which power is given to regional and ethnically based authorities. The 2005 elections were deeply troubled, with violence and widespread accusations of fraud. A number of prominent opposition leaders were accused of inciting violence and held as political prisoners for calling a general strike and boycotting the new parliament.

The flawed 2010 elections resulted in an EPRDF landslide, with only 2 seats going to the opposition. A crackdown on opposition parties, civil society, and the media prior to the elections further limited political space in the country. Since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn has served as prime minister.

Freedom House describes Ethiopia as “not free,” with both the civil liberties and political rights given a rating of 6, with 1 regarded as most free and 7 as least free. 

More from Birtukan Midekssa

Birtukan Midekssa: Becoming a Lawyer “I was full of excitement to join the judiciary and give some kind of public service to my community.” Birtukan Midekssa: Role of Women “You find very strong women but we don’t see the participation of women in political leadership.” Birtukan Midekssa: Heroes Birtukan discusses her heroes. More + Birtukan Midekssa: Politics in Ethiopia “When we had a regime change in 1991, we expected a shift in our political history.” Birtukan Midekssa: Aftermath of the Elections “Our government wanted to handle the issues through violent means – we were charged with all types of crimes.” Birtukan Midekssa: Arrested Again “They wanted me to recant what I said. I went back to prison.” Birtukan Midekssa: Birtukan Enters Politics “I decided to run for parliament in 2000. But the election was not free and competitive.” Birtukan Midekssa: Judging the Defense Minister “I knew the political sensitivity, I knew the expectation of the government, I knew what I would do would have serious consequences for my future.” Birtukan Midekssa: The 2005 Elections “The regime had never seen that kind of excitement and turnout from the public.” Birtukan Midekssa: Message to Dissidents “Message to Dissidents” Birtukan Midekssa: Prison and Pardon “We hoped that we would have a real dialogue and negotiation.” Birtukan Midekssa: Becoming a Judge “If you don’t follow the interest of the party, there was a clear understanding of the consequences.” Birtukan Midekssa: Background “Sometimes people get amazed that I’m involved in politics, coming from that kind of family background.” Birtukan Midekssa: Human Rights in Ethiopia “It was a story of persecution. It was a story of repression.” Birtukan Midekssa: Becoming a Party Leader “I was known for defying the government.”