On June 11, 38 prominent opposition leaders in Ethiopia were found guilty of multiple capital crimes, including treason and "outrages against the constitution."
The developments were the latest outrage in Africa's third most populous nation. Since contested elections in May 2005 resulted in surprisingly strong showings by opposition parties, hundreds of opposition political leaders, students, lawyers and others have been killed or arrested.
The most recent convictions and the overall human-rights crackdown since the 2005 elections have been condemned by worldwide human-rights groups (Reporters without Borders recently ranked Ethiopia second worst on the African continent for press freedoms behind Eritrea). But that's been largely overshadowed in major U.S. media more focused on Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia against the Islamic Union of Courts—with U.S. military support.
More than 8,500 miles away in Portland, 54-year-old Lulit Mesfin is among the leaders in the fight in America to free the prisoners in her native country and sanction the Ethiopian regime for its abuses. In recent weeks, she has made some headway.
Mesfin, who came to America in 1972 to study in Los Angeles, is secretary of the 10-member Ethiopian-American Council of Portland. She is one of the leading Ethiopian-American activists fighting for democratic rule in her home country of 77 million people.
Days after the June 11 convictions, Mesfin successfully lobbied U.S. Reps. David Wu and Earl Blumenauer (both D-Ore.) to be among the half-dozen co-sponsors of HR 2003. The resolution calls for the release of the political prisoners, conditions U.S. foreign policy on Ethiopia to improvements in human rights, and directly sanctions human-rights abusers there.
Mesfin's influence is also felt in Salem. Earlier this month, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed off on a similar Ethiopia-human rights resolution passed by the House and Senate. Mesfin testified at two hearings on "Joint Memorial 3," saying of the resolution, "If President Bush considers democracy is good for Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia and Ukraine, it ought to be good for Ethiopia as well."
Oregon becomes the second state along with Massachusetts to pass Ethiopia-related human-rights resolutions.
Although the actions of the Oregon Legislature or even the U.S. Congress may not mean anything to Ethiopia's leaders, Mesfin says it's important to agitate for such actions because it "gives hope to Ethiopian citizens and shows the [Zenawi] government that people are watching."
And it certainly gives hope to Hiwot Nega, an Ethiopian living in New York, that at least somebody in the United States is paying attention. Her brother, Dr. Berhanu Nega, one of the most popular opposition leaders in Ethiopia, was elected mayor of the nation's capital city, Addis Ababa, in 2005—and among those subsequently arrested en masse.
He is one of the 38 who now face a possible death sentence.
"My family, here and those inside Ethiopia, is indebted to Lulit for her work," Nega says. "We hope it leads to a more free society—it only can come from people like Lulit."