The Cato Institute, a respected libertarian public policy foundation in the United States, has been searching for the fifth recipient of its liberty award. Named after the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman [1912-2006], the award is “presented every other year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.” The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty is a coveted award that recognizes significant efforts and sacrifices made by any individual to promote freedom in any part of the world. If any Ethiopian deserves nominations for such a prestigious award, there seems to be little doubt that Birtukan Mideksa, the former judge-turned-prisoner-of-conscience outshines so many. Freedom loving Ethiopians across the world need to show their solidarity with the heroine freedom fighter that has followed the footsteps of Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in stead of kneeling down for the rule of the unjust.
Ethiopians in the Diaspora, especially those who have escaped from barbed-wired Ethiopia to live in the free world, where evil dictators and their agents cannot threaten, shoot, jail or torture anyone, make free choices based on free will. But for people like Birtukan Mideksa and the tens of thousands of Ethiopians who have been locked up behind bars in inhuman and appalling conditions because of their passion for freedom, there is nothing called free will. They cannot choose what to do, what to eat, what to read, where and how to live. They are victims of brutal tyranny, prisoners in their own country confined in the dark corners of filthy, overcrowded and suffocating cells as a result of their unyielding passion for liberty.
In the aftermath of the historic 2005 national elections, Birtukan chose to courageously step forward to lead the popular march for freedom. Her leadership qualities and unswerving commitment to her lofty cause significantly contributed to her election as Vice President of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. After the violent crackdowns that followed protests against wide spread election fraud, she was one of the hundreds of opposition leaders, journalists, civic activists and ordinary citizens who were detained and faced trumped-up charges of high treason, genocide and outrage against the “constitution” in November 2005. Even during that period of trials and tribulations that lasted nearly 20 months, the fearless lawyer openly challenged the Kangaroo court to prove its worth and relevance.
In her letters, articles and speeches, Birtukan has declared her readiness to offer herself as a sacrificial lamb for the freedom of the Ethiopian people suffering under the yolks of Meles Zenawi’s ethnocentric tyranny. True to her word, Birtukan Mideksa has proved her unfaltering stand as a leader of Ethiopia’s quest for freedom, justice, equal rights and democracy. The popular leader of freedom, who has been recognised by Amnesty International as prisoner of conscience, has become Ethiopia’s icon of liberty and a symbol of defiance against tyranny. Undoubtedly, there is clearly something distinct and unique about this woman of substance. In her Letter from Kaliti Jail, she wrote:
“Indeed, living behind bars is painful. I have felt pained, when hearing about the struggle of my fellow country men; for being forced to experience it all vicariously, for being near but far away from the terrain of the fight. Yet the pain ends right there. Our incarceration hasn't liquidated the spirit of freedom. Instead, it degrades those who are fighting against it into something hateful and undignified. Toughened by the crackdown on dissent and other forms of oppression, other democrats, genuinely committed to the cause of liberty, and equality are emerging.”
A single mom of five-year-old Hale, Birtukan never committed a crime. Her passionate and truthful words that always insist on the end of a corrupt dictatorship messing up Ethiopia were enough to have her condemned to life imprisonment without due process. During her visit in Sweden in November 2008, she spoke the truth about the fact that she and the other high profile prisoners of conscience were released as a result of a political deal struck by the Elders Council, international and local pressures. That was true and accurate. Her assertion was even confirmed by the U.S. Department of State.
In its 2008 Country Report on Human Rights in Ethiopia, it stated: “On December 29, Unity for Democracy and Justice Party president Birtukan Mideksa was rearrested for accurately telling European media organizations that she had not requested from the government a pardon leading to her release from jail in July 2007.”
The reason why the report used the adverbial assertion “accurately” was because U.S. diplomats were part of the diplomatic process conducted through the “Elders Council” that negotiated a deal to have the high profile prisoners including Britukan released.
Where there is tyranny, whose foundation is nothing but brutality, corruption, crimes, falsehood and deceit, the truth has always been subversive. Birtukan has always been a true believer in the unyielding spirit of freedom. Shortly after her release in October 2007, she appeared before the U.S. Congress, Subcommittee on Global Health and Africa to give her testimony in which she expressed her hope that the time is ripe for change. “It will not be easy for all of us to confront the past. We must try to embrace the rule of law and respect for human rights and democracy. The time is ripe for democratization in Ethiopia.” When she uttered those words, Birtukan knew the sacrifices awaiting her in the struggle to replace inhuman despotism with democracy. It is for this very fact that Birtukan has willingly and courageously faced hardship and suffering in stead of the tyrant’s call for surrender.
Should Birtukan be chosen as a recipient of the 2010 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, she will receive $500,000. More importantly, the award will raise wider awareness on Ethiopia’s agony under dictatorship. It will also boost the effort to secure Birtukan’s release. Not only that, her immeasurable sacrifice and that of her elderly mum and four year old daughter will gain global recognition and the attention. The prize awarding ceremony will be held in May 2010 in Washington DC, coinciding with the 5th anniversary of the historic May 2005 elections that irreparably cracked the foundations of tyranny in Ethiopia.
I call upon all freedom loving Ethiopians, in and outside of the country, to let the awarding committee know that the courageous Birtukan Mideksa deserves the 2010 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty as a towering symbol of Ethiopia’s resistance and defiance against tyranny in the unfinished march toward freedom.
To nominate Birtukan Mediksa online, please click here.
The writer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and visiting scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law [CDDRL], Stanford University. He also advises the Free Birtukan and All Political Prisoners Task Force. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org