Saturday, November 12, 2005

Local Man Wins Post in Ethiopia, Later is Jailed

The Virginian-Pilot -- VIRGINIA BEACH — When the government in Ethiopia announced its first open elections in May, Yacob Hailemariam knew what he had to do.

“It was time to go serve the motherland,” said his friend, Berhanu Mengistu, a professor at Old Dominion University. “He ran away from Ethiopia, but his heart was always in Ethiopia.”

Hailemariam, a business professor at Norfolk State University for nearly 20 years, retired early; moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and ran for a seat in parliament.

Like several other champions of democracy, he won decisively. The victory quickly evaporated.

The ruling party tried to limit the power of the opposition. The newcomers refused to take their seats in the parliament and demanded reform first. Negotiations broke down.

On Oct. 31, two dozen opposition leaders, including Hailemariam, were jailed. They were accused of fomenting violence and seeking to overthrow the government. Thousands more have been detained and nearly 50 people killed in clashes between demonstrators and government forces since then.

His relatives and friends are certain Hailemariam, 61, a former official with the United Nations, did nothing wrong.

“He’s not whatsoever looking for any confrontation, for sure,” said Wold Zemedkun, his successor as head of NSU’s Department of Economics, Entrepreneurship, Finance and Marketing. “I believe Hailemariam can serve the people of Ethiopia, and that’s all he’s interested in.”

Hailemariam’s wife, Tegist Alemu , lives in their house off Providence Road in the Fairfield section of Virginia Beach. She has not seen or spoken to him since his imprisonment.

“What can you do?” she said almost serenely, sitting on her living room floor, surrounding by newspaper clippings documenting the turbulence in her home country.

“She has faith,” said their daughter, Seyenie Yacob. “She said, ‘I’ve left it to God.’”

Mengistu, also an Ethiopian native, openly worries about his friend’s fate.

“The prime minister two times said, ‘We are going to try them for treason,’” Mengistu said. “When a government says that, at least on the African continent, they want to kill you.”

His daughter said Hailemariam, known to his friends as “Dr. Yacob,” always has been “a humanitarian at heart.” A lawyer, he held “democracy classes” for college students and defended political prisoners under Ethiopia’s Marxist government until he was forced to flee.

After two years in Kenya, he came to the United States in 1980. He received his doctorate in business administration from United States International University in San Diego and, in 1985, began teaching business law at Norfolk State.

“He’s a person of his word,” Zemedkun said. “Whatever he says, he’s going to do.”

Hailemariam has acted like an uncle to Mengistu’s two sons. “If you ask Yacob, ‘Stop this; do this with me,’ he would give you the shirt off his back,” Mengistu said.

Hailemariam took a sabbatical from NSU in the mid-90s to serve as the lead prosecutor in the U.N. tribunal on war crimes in Rwanda. In 2003, he left again, to help the U.N. settle border disputes between Nigeria and Cameroon.

While with the U.N., Hailemariam learned last year of the prospect of free elections in Ethiopia. He wanted to participate.

“He kept on saying the thing which makes him happy in his life is to encourage democracy,” said Alemu, who stayed in the United States. “We said if that’s what makes him happy, we’ll support him.” So did thousands of Ethiopians in the election, his family says. In the months after the election, Hailemariam became a frequent spokesman for the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. He was interviewed by news outlets including National Public Radio and the Agence France Presse.

At least twice before his arrest, his family said, Hailemariam was harassed by government security forces. One followed him into a restaurant and spit in his face. The next time, an officer put a gun to his head but didn’t fire.

In phone calls home, he had warned his family of what might befall him. “He said, ‘Yeah, they might arrest us.’ He made light of it all, just for our sake,” said his daughter, adding, “and for anyone else who might be listening.”

Alemu learned of his arrest from an article she found on the Internet. After a few calls to family in Ethiopia, she determined that he was alive.

The U.S. government has avoided pressuring the Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and has urged both sides to negotiate. Mengistu, a professor of urban studies and public administration, said, “How can you negotiate when the government is using brute force and the opposition is in jail?”

The U.S. government, Mengistu said, is “sidestepping the issue” because it considers Ethiopia an anchor of stability in eastern Africa.

Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, denounced Zenawi in an interview with Voice of America, a multimedia international broadcasting service. “I believe the Ethiopian government is demonstrating its true nature,” he said Thursday. “The current government is very authoritarian and even totalitarian.”

The Human Rights Watch group has not commented on the recent arrests on its Web site, but it reported persistent “human rights abuses and political repression” in Ethiopia before the election.

Hailemariam is being held at the same detention center where the former government tortured opponents, but Alemu thinks he is safe and healthy. Friends saw him on Ethiopian television this week during a brief court appearance.

On Friday evening, relatives and friends gathered at a Virginia Beach church to propel a campaign seeking Hailemariam’s release. “I’m just hoping he will one day see democracy in Ethiopia,” Alemu said.

“We believe God is a God of truth,” his daughter said. “Somehow we need a miraculous thing to happen.”

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