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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bay Area Ethiopians Remember Elections

Inside Bay Area -- When it comes to the month of May, many Bay Area residents of Ethiopian origin have mixed emotions.

On the one hand, they are proud of a historic day — May 15, 2005 — when more than 25 million people in their native Ethiopia went out to vote in the national parliamentary elections.

But on the other hand, they are angry about the civilians who were killed and detained by the government since then.

"I was happy for the people (who were able) to exercise their democratic rights, but their dream for hope changed into a nightmare in just a few days," said Araya "Zuzu" Asfaw of Oakland.

In June and November last year, thousands of demonstrators filled streets in the capital city, Addis Ababa, and in other regions of the country.

The masses opposed election results for being rigged to keep the current ruling party, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, and its leader, Meles Zenawi, in power.

They believed their votes for the Coalition for Unity and Democratic Party and its leader, Hailu Shawel, were not accounted for at the polls.

More than 80 demonstrators were shot dead during post-election protests, according to a recent Amnesty International news release.

The U.S. State Department report on HumanRights Practices in Countries released in March states that: "(Ethiopian) authorities arbitrarily detained, beat and killed opposition members, ethnic minorities, NGO workers and members of the press." There were also reports of disappearances and tortures.

More than 100 Coalition members and their supporters have been held prisoners since November. The prisoners include Shawel, an engineer; Birtukan Mideksa, a female former judge; Berahnu Nega, Addis Ababa's elected mayor; and Mesfin W/Mariam, 76, a professor and veteran human rights activist. A trial began early this month in which charges of treason, among others, could lead to the death sentence.

But additional reports show that thousands more civilians have been detained outside the capital city.

"To date, unknown numbers of prisoners are languishing in prisons under abhorrent conditions," said Abebe Hailu, spokesperson for San Jose-based Ethiopian Americans Council.

The council, a grass-roots organization with members across the nation, is pushing for a U.S. congressional bill asking the Ethiopian government to unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.

So far, 20 members of Congress have co-sponsored HR 4423, authored by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey. The bill is called "Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2006."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose is one of the co-sponsors. Hailu said they are working to get the support of other California leaders, including Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Tom Lantos of San Mateo.

In Oakland, more than 300 residents from the greater Bay Area attended a fundraiser May 13 to commemorate the historically large turnout at the polls in Ethiopia.

Organized by the Oakland-based Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the event featured speakers and well-known local artists, as well as artists popular within Ethiopian communities worldwide, including Bezawork Asfaw, Tamagne Beyene, Adugnaw Worku and Tesfaye Sima.

During the fundraiser, organizers received a congressional plaque and letters from Lee and former Congressman Ron Dellums recognizing the historic event.

Between laughs, the audience also shed some tears as Tamagne Beyene, a popular comedian, talked of the loss of young and old people and showed images of bleeding demonstrators and mothers crying over coffins of their children's bodies.

"This is not about politics," he said. "This is a human rights issue."

Both he and the event's keynote speaker, Solomon Bekele, a high-ranking official of the Coalition in Washington, D.C., are among a number of people wanted by the ruling party in Ethiopia mainly for treason.

Last year, Beyene released a video, which included mock interviews with the current leader Zenawi and the previous leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

When asked to describe his comedy style during an interview, he said it is a combination of Bill Maher and Jay Leno. But his comedy came at a price, which prevents him from rejoining his family and the crowd of which he is a product, he said.

Beyene moved to the United States in 1996 after he was tortured and beaten in jail for making comic portrayals of government members under the current regime, which has been in power since 1991.

Among those in prison, the former judge, Mideksa, is a single mother, said Getahun Bekele of Oakland.

She is only able to see her less-than-a-year-old daughter once a week for an hour but has vowed to continue her struggle until the people are free, said Getahun Bekele, who recently received a message from her family.

As next-door neighbors, the children in the Bekele and Mideksa families grew up together, he said.

Asfaw, who has family ties to Shawel, said he participated in several protests in the Bay Area since the massacres began in Ethiopia.

"We will win our freedom by any means," he said, adding that he lives in a free country, but as long as the Ethiopian people are in captivity, he is captive as well.

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