The Virginian-Pilot -- Imagine standing up for what is right and being imprisoned.”
Those words adorned T-shirts worn by many of the 300 citizens gathered at Norfolk State University Tuesday evening. They had come to free Yacob.
Black, white and brown, wearing sorority jackets, suits and kids on their hips, they gathered outside the Wilder Center amid the pink azaleas and young boxwoods on a spring day when it’s hard to imagine anything is wrong in this world.
But something is wrong.
In fact, something’s dreadfully wrong when the people are leading and the leaders are silent. Or hoping like Hades no one asks why they haven’t generated some official action for Yacob Hailemariam.
“Dr. Yacob,” as he was known to his NSU students, left his comfortable Virginia Beach home of two decades to spread America’s democratic values to his native Ethiopia by running for a seat in parliament, which he won, last May.
But Ethiopia’s leader gutted parliament of any real power — a nice little totalitarian perk — and threw Hailemariam, 61, and his fellow pro-democracy leaders in jail on bogus charges of treason and genocide.
Now he sits in prison with more than 100 democratic activists and journalists, guilty only of a passion for freedom, with a possible death sentence hanging over his graying head. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Something’s wrong when hundreds of neighbors, former students, sailors, Marines and Spartans who never took a class with Hailemariam but knew him by reputation turn out in force on his behalf and still can’t get their congressional representatives’ attention.
Something’s also wrong when the excited, purposeful hubbub of students — the very group politicians are always tut-tutting for not being “engaged on the issues” — overpowers those same politicians’ radio silence.
And something’s wrong when a White House and a Congress that could hold a two-way bull-excrement-flinging contest about democracy in the Middle East are conspicuously mum about it elsewhere.
Some lawmakers aren’t. A bill by New Jersey GOP Rep. Chris Smith to encourage the Ethiopian government to shape up or lose aid money is wending its way through the House.
Co-sponsors run the gamut from fire-breathing conservatives to crotchety liberals, and include two Virginians, Democrat Jim Moran and Republican Frank Wolf.
Absent are Rep. Thelma Drake, who represents Hailemariam’s family, Rep. Bobby Scott, who represents NSU, and Sens. George Allen and John Warner.
Allen and Drake say they’ve sent letters of inquiry to the State Department or the Ethiopian Embassy, which is a little like knocking on the fox’s den as he’s gnawing on a chicken bone.
Drake told me in February that she hadn’t joined Smith’s bill because she hadn’t yet received a “Dear Colleague” letter — an announcement of the bill that goes out to all members of Congress. But Smith’s office confirmed Tuesday that the letter was sent in November.
Scott’s office refused to talk on the record Tuesday. Allen has resisted all entreaties, including a face-to-face one from Hailemariam’s daughter, to introduce similar legislation.
Something’s wrong when those sporting the title of “representative” ... well, aren’t. As NSU sophomore Alonzo Walker put it, “I can’t believe they wouldn’t use this issue to push democracy. But hey, what’s in it for them? It’s a give-and-take political system.”
Neither a diplomatic démarche nor a sternly worded letter to The Times will free Yacob.
In the global war on terror, America is not a supplicant. Ethiopia is one of our largest aid recipients, and we have monetary and diplomatic levers at our disposal to encourage compliance with democratic ideals.
Maybe the White House and Congress need to be reminded that we don’t have to occupy a country in order to liberate its people.
Yes, imagine standing up for what’s right.