Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reflections on a visit from prison

FROM THE DESK OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL


Reflections on a visit to prison.




Release Date: 13 April 2006

By Kumi Naidoo, CIVICUS Secretary General

Dear e-CIVICUS readers,

Last week, a delegation from the Global Call to Action Against Poverty visited Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie, both civil society leaders in Ethiopia where they have been held in prison for five months. You can read more about the outcome of the visit elsewhere in e-CIVICUS 287 but I wanted to share some of the highlights here.

We met with various civil society leaders and the families of the political prisoners on the first day of our visit. They painted a very troubling picture of the political space available in Ethiopia at the moment.

We also succeeded in securing a meeting with the government. During our meeting, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi was cordial and knowledgeable about civil society debates and his knowledge of the development challenges facing Africa were impressive. He explained that he places great confidence in indigenous, membership-based African civil society organisations, as opposed to those which primarily receive overseas funding and have no membership constuency. He did, however, acknowledge that these NGOs often do good work.

Our delegation, which included the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane and Salil Shetty of the UN Millennium Campaign, appealed for permission to visit our colleagues in prison and we were grateful that the Prime Minister's office obliged. He also assured us that the government would not stand in the way of the launch of the Global Call to Action against Poverty in Ethiopia, the only country not to be colonised on the African continent.

Both Daniel and Netsanet, whom I am privileged to have met before, had lost weight and said that the conditions under which they are being held were far from great but yet they are trying to cope. They have been charged with treason. However, unlike the political prisoners from the opposition political party also awaiting trial, they do not have access to the evidence that the state plans to use against them and which they could use has a basis for the preparation of their own defence.

From my own knowledge of these two colleagues, I am absolutely certain that there is no basis for the charge of treason. Both of them are human rights activists that have a consistent record of using their legal skills and training as lawyers to advance the interests of the poor in Ethiopia.

As many people around the world observe the Easter weekend and its significance, it is important that we remember Daniel, Netsanet and many other political prisoners around the world. In this day and age, where democracy is supposedly on the rise, the fact that people who have alternative views from the state or government are held as political prisoners does not seem right.

Daniel and Netsanet where at pains to stress that "if one good thing can come out of our incarceration it should be the strengthening of civil society generally and the building of GCAP in Ethiopia more specifically". This was the message we shared at a meeting of civil society groups subsequent to our visit to prison. Their trial starts on 2 May 2006. Please monitor the civil society watch website (http://www.civilsocietywatch.org) where we will be following proceedings.

Daniel and Netsanet also expressed a great interest in pursuing graduate level human rights studies while in prison and CIVICUS is trying to secure support for this. If you would like to support our efforts to strengthen civil society in Ethiopia please contact julie@civicus.org for more information or visit CIVICUS blog at http://civicus.civiblog.org/blog.

It is important to note that several hundred members of the political opposition, including the elected mayor of Addis Adiba and several elected members of parliament are also imprisoned. While our focus has been related to our civil society colleagues, the charges being brought against all defendants appear to be questionable. The fact that members of the political opposition have decided not to co-operate with the legal process suggests that Ethiopia is facing a serious political log jam. The people of Ethiopia hold a special place in the hearts of many Africans and citizens of the world over given some of the challenges and tragedies that nations has had to endure. A contested legal process is unlikely to deliver a lasting resolution. What is called for now is the political wisdom for a dialogue with the opposition so that a political resolution can be found and civil society can play its full role in securing democracy and development.

In Solidarity,

Kumi Naidoo

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