Ethiopia's Political Prisoners – Profesor Asrat Woldeyes by Wendy Belcher
I met Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, Ethiopian prisoner of conscience and main opposition leader, for the first and last time on May 15, 1998, almost exactly a year before his death on May 14, 1999. Since many have asked me about that meeting in prison, I thought I would tell the story here in memory of him.
I lived in Ethiopia as a young girl from 1966 to 1969, when my father was a faculty member at the Public Health College in Gondar. In the last two years I have returned twice to Ethiopia to do research and as a member of an international society of writers called PEN that focuses on those who have been imprisoned for expressing their political views.
Before I left for Ethiopia last May, I asked several Ethiopian friends about Dr. Asrat. I had been following his case since 1994, when he was first imprisoned, so I knew from recent reports that his health was failing. My friends told me that the government had rarely, if ever, allowed interviews with him while he was in prison. I decided to attempt to see him. From my experience with PEN in other countries, I knew that a foreigner journalist simply expressing interest in a particular prisoner often improved the prisoner's treatment.
When I arrived in Addis Ababa and asked Ethiopian colleagues what government agency I should approach to request an interview, they surprised me by suggesting the U.S. Embassy. The embassy was equally surprised to be asked. The ambassador pronounced an interview "extremely unlikely," and we were all astonished when their informal request was promptly granted. Later, as the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea escalated, it was easier to see why the embattled Ethiopian government would want a journalist to broadcast Asrat's thoughts.
The day I was granted the interview, several soldiers took me to the Tikur Ambessa (Black Lion) Hospital where Asrat had been hospitalized for four months. Ethiopian radio had announced Eritrea's invasion yesterday, so the men were alert, nervous. Inside, though, all was typical of a busy city hospital: the sharp smell of disinfectant, the crowded corridors, the stare of pain. My armed escort and I climbed several flights before sighting a doctor.
By the eighth floor, the corridors were empty of patients. Six soldiers camped in the yellow hallway. Four slept on mats, fully dressed in desert-brown fatigues and huge boots. From their balcony, I could glimpse the narrow street below, where small cars dodged pedestrians. Sounds of everyday life drifted up: tinny radios and buses downshifting.
The soldier on duty shouldered his rifle, and we approached the blue door of one of the hospital rooms in a phalanx. I entered hesitantly.
A small man in paisley pajamas started in the hospital bed. He sat up awkwardly and tried to pull his top to rights. The book he had been reading fell to the floor.
"I'm sorry," I stammered. "Didn't they tell you I was coming?"
He eyed me. "Of course not," he replied firmly. "I am a prisoner."
Then 70 years old, half blind, and lying in a hospital bed, Dr. Asrat Woldeyes had lost none of his legendary outspokenness.The young soldiers looked down and were silent.
Asrat Woldeyes was Ethiopia's most famous political prisoner, a symbol of the region's nationalist passions, and an opposition leader whom many (including Amnesty International) worked to free. These mantles descended upon him only in his sixties, as Asrat had lived almost his entire life as a distinguished academic and the country's leading surgeon before entering politics. He started an opposition party called the All-Amhara People's Organization (AAPO) in 1992, a year after northern revolutionaries overthrew Ethiopia's brutal 17-year dictatorship.
In 1992, Ethiopia's new transitional government was then encouraging the country and political parties to divide along ethnic lines-an answer to the ethnic politics that have torn such countries as Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and a policy that has occasionally found sponsors as far afield as the U.S. Department of State. The policy was called ethnic federalism, and Asrat's party resisted it from the outset. At the same time, the party's call to unity was viewed skeptically because Asrat's party represented Ethiopia's dominant ethnic group. After giving a heated speech in the Amhara regional capital, Asrat was accused of inciting armed revolt and, in three trials declared unfair by Amnesty International, was sentenced to five years and six months in prison, starting in June 1994.
Dr. Asrat's small room contained little other than his modern hospital bed: a side table and two chairs. Flowered curtains brightened the room, as did a high window. "I am like a bird in a cage," Asrat commented as I pulled up a chair. The two soldiers, who did not speak English, stood silent and still throughout. Asrat waved toward the window and explained, "At least a bird in a cage can have fresh air coming through the bars, but during the night the window is locked. Everything is locked for about 12 to 13 hours." He gave a wry laugh. "So that the bird will not fly out."
Asrat frequently laughed during the interview, pointing out the ironies of his position. First, that he was now imprisoned in the very hospital that he founded and led for 35 years, attended by the physicians and nurses whom he trained. Orphaned as a boy, Asrat always ranked first in his class and was the first Ethiopian student to go to Edinburgh Medical School and join the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1956, he returned to Ethiopia as the country's first postwar physician. He served for almost four decades at the Princess Tsehai and Black Lion hospitals and was the first dean of the faculty of medicine at the prestigious Addis Ababa University. He attended Emperor Haile Selassie as his personal physician and, controversially, was assigned as a military doctor to the dangerous frontlines of the civil war with Eritrea. Hardly any hospital or health policy in Ethiopia has lacked his imprint, and hundreds owe their lives to him.
The second irony was that he continued to be held for making statements that the Ethiopian government itself has now embraced. Asrat's crime was to come out against the experiment in ethnic federalism, under which Ethiopia's 80 ethnic groups were freed to pursue their own destiny. This policy led to the 1993 secession of the northern region of Eritrea, which had participated in the overthrow of the Ethiopian government and the partitioning of the country into nine ethnic regions. But when ethnic regions other than Eritrea began agitating for independence, the Ethiopian government came down heavily, jailing hundreds and closing political parties' offices. Asrat was one casualty, as were many activists from the country's marginalized majority group, the Oromo.
"At that time, the whole [government] was against unity," he told me, twisting to see me with his good eye. "It was for ethnic differences, interethnic conflicts. The whole purpose of the party that we created was to fight against breaking Ethiopia into different religions, ethnicities, to be united as one nation, as one brother, as one sister. The [government] said that what we were trying to do was wrong, that Ethiopia should be disintegrated.
"Now, today, it is absolutely going the way I was propagating, unity. And not because I created it: This is what Ethiopia is; the whole history, the bitter experience, the labor pain of Ethiopian birth is, fundamentally, unity. Even if you want to put people in a box according to ethnic group, it is impossible," Asrat continued in a torrent. "I myself, by mere accident, I belong absolutely to one ethnic group. But the majority of Ethiopians today are an interethnic, mixed group. You cannot divide people, you cannot build a nation in that way. You only completely destroy whatever little development you have." Then he nodded toward his radio meaningfully. "At that time, I was a sinner. Today, they are saying the same thing for which I am imprisoned."
Indeed, for the past year the government has been steadily backpedaling from the policy of ethnic federalism and ethnic independence. Relentless criticism from almost all of Ethiopia's intellectual class, regardless of ethnicity, has caused the pragmatic government to reconsider. In announcing the Ethiopian-Eritrean war last May, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi asked all Ethiopians to "unite" in defending the "territorial integrity" of Ethiopia, words he had avoided for the seven years he had been in power.
The ebb of this tide had not then resulted in Asrat's freedom, but it did allow me to interview him and publish his views on national unity in many Ethiopian and U.S. newspapers as well as on the BBC World Service. When Dr. Asrat was freed on Christmas Day seven months later, after he petitioned the government to travel to the United States for medical treatment, many observers were not surprised. The minority government was attempting to increase its base among intellectuals by freeing the popular doctor.
The third irony was that Dr. Asrat never intended to enter politics, but looked forward to his retirement after years of 18-hour days. In July 1991, however, he took a fateful step and, as the representative of the university, cast the only vote against the government's transitional charter. He read a prepared speech predicting that the consequences of the charter would be tragedy and arguing against a constitution that enshrined ethnicity. This was a turning point.
Other educated residents of Addis Ababa applauded his act, and he began to speak out regularly. He declared that it was morally wrong to play a passive role while the government sowed seeds of ethnic hatred. In 1992, he was fired from his university post along with 42 other dissident academics. Newly retired from the hospital, he found himself with time on his hands and formed AAPO to protect Amharas and agitate for unity. In a short time, he gained tremendous popular support in Addis Ababa, not only from Amharas, but also from all those who chose to think of themselves as Ethiopians first and as members of an ethnic group second.
"I didn't get into these politics because I had any particular ambitions," he explained. "I haven't any. I am not a politician, I am a professional. I only came into this because the houses in my neighborhood were burning, and it is not correct. I only came to contribute a pail of water." Then, passionately, "I am not against the people in power, I am not. Anybody can be in power. The only thing is, for heaven's sake, don't set fire next door and next door, and all of us just become ashes. That is why I got into this thing. Because there was a madness, that's all. At the end of this life of mine, what ambition can I have? I have done my work for this nation. Now I should be in retirement, reflecting."
The summer of 1993 marked Asrat's first arrest. He was detained for 43 days without trial and then released on bail. A huge, chanting crowd turned out to celebrate his release, and it was clear that he was well on his way to becoming an almost mythic figure. On June 27, 1994, Ethiopia's high court found him guilty of conspiracy to incite the population to armed revolt against the government, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Three months later, thousands were detained for demonstrating in support of him at the court. In December, he was given an additional three-year sentence for the heated speech he gave at Debre Birhan, the Amhara capital.
By January, six months into his jail sentence, he had spent 80 days in court without a judgment being handed down on his third charge. So he prepared a statement saying that he no longer wished to contest the charges against him.
"I said that the court should not waste its valuable time on having me come every month to the court and make an appearance as though there was a real legal case, when it was very well-known that at the end of all of the proceedings I was going to be found guilty and sentenced. Therefore I requested of the court to save its valuable time and to sentence me now. This would also allow me to have physical rest in prison."
He was held in contempt of court for this statement and given an additional six-month sentence. Four years later, when I interviewed him, he was still waiting for judgment on his third and most serious charge. Despite his being eligible, parole had not been granted him.
Then, in late January 1998, Asrat was admitted to the hospital because of sudden blindness, probably due to a small stroke. Once he was in the hospital, doctors found that he was also diabetic and hypertensive. While his health did improve in the hospital, the care he received there was not sufficient.
"Certainly, if I were not a prisoner, I would have gone abroad to a special place. But I have been doctored by Mother Nature, since the hospital is limited, and I'm happy to say I'm improving." He had slowly recovered some of his sight in his left eye, enough to read and when I spoke with him, he was anxious to get out of the hospital. "The sooner I get out, the better," he said pointedly, "even if it is to prison. At least there I can breathe fresh air." Unfortunately, this recovery was only temporary and by November he was in intensive care.
Dr. Asrat also noted that he was consistently denied the rights of other Ethiopian prisoners. While in prison, he was not allowed to talk with fellow prisoners and was not treated promptly for his medical conditions. While in the hospital, he was not allowed any visitors for two months and still received very few thereafter. Most of all, he has not been allowed to write.
"The only thing I am allowed is to read," he reported, gesturing toward the book at his side. "I can read. But every month all the prisoners are searched, and whatever I've written, it will be taken. If I were allowed to write, then I wouldn't mind being in prison. They can imprison me for the rest of my life," Asrat argued.
Asrat was philosophical then about his life in prison. "Not accepting the situation you are in, you only hurt yourself. Therefore, I accept. Not because they are correct, but I accept because I cannot do anything about it; it is beyond my power. Time will be the better judge than human beings. Because my only crime is that I have all my life served my people and my country. Therefore, I am comforted."
Dr. Asrat was not without his critics. Unfortunately, in rebuking the government's ethnic policies, Asrat fell into a similar trap. Friends warned that it was hypocrisy to condemn the government for focusing on ethnicity when he was himself leading an exclusive political party based on ethnicity. When other AAPO leaders began to recommend that the party change direction and focus less on protecting Amharas and more on national unity, Asrat refused.
The party had begun to founder when Asrat was jailed. Then, as so often happens, he became a martyr. Certainly, for most educated Ethiopians, he became a potent symbol of the enduring allure of national unity and the government's intransigence on freedom of speech.
After I interviewed Dr. Asrat, a number of Ethiopian journalists were emboldened to request interviews as well. Thus, in the last year of his life, Dr. Asrat's views were widely disseminated and those who had been most concerned about his ethnic views were glad to see that he had mellowed. When he was freed, huge crowds met him wherever he went, and when he died, memorial services were held for him around the globe.
When I heard the news that Dr. Asrat had passed from this life into the next, I wept. I wept for myself (because I would never meet him again), I wept for him (because he would never have the chance to write his story down, as he wished to do), and I wept for Ethiopia (because yet another of her children had paid the ultimate price for freedom). Many things will be said about Dr. Asrat, but the most important is that he had the courage to speak against injustice as he saw it. Those of us with less courage may criticize some of what he said, but none of us sacrificed our health, and ultimately our life, for a vision of liberty. May we all inherit his courage and work in his name for all those who remain imprisoned.
Wendy Belcher is a freelance writer and editor who lived in Ethiopia and Ghana and has been writing about Africa for 15 years. She is a contributing editor of the Ethiopian Review.