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Four years ago this spring, Birtukan Midekssa was in solitary confinement in an Ethiopian prison. Her cell was 13 feet wide and 20 feet long and had no window. She was allowed only two visitors: her elderly mother and her 3-year-old daughter.
Midekssa left Ethiopia in 2011, after two imprisonments that consumed 41 months of her life. She stayed first in Washington, D.C., and then at Stanford University. Today — grateful, happy, and energized — she has an office (with a window) at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, where she is a fellow this year. (A lawyer by training, Midekssa is also a Visiting Fellow with Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program; starting in the fall she’ll pursue a one-year mid-career master’s degree in public administration through the Mason Program at Harvard Kennedy School.)
Most apt of all her local connections, perhaps, is her role as a Harvard Scholar at Risk. The program — based in New York, with dozens of affiliates at universities across the world — guarantees a year or more of refuge for scholars, writers, and scientists who in their native lands are under threat of death, imprisonment, or harassment.
“I was in prison because I spoke,” said Midekssa.
She was first sent to prison in 2005 — entering when her daughter Halley was 8 months old — and then again in 2008. Both times she was sentenced to life (the second time her original sentence was death). Both times Midekssa was pardoned because of pressure from international human rights groups. But she was ready to live her whole life in a cell. “I was being imprisoned for a right cause. What else could I do?” said Midekssa. “If you restrain your self-expression, you are left with what? Your diminished self.”
Midekssa had entered Ethiopia’s political arena in 2002 after serving nearly six years on that nation’s federal criminal bench. “Most of my years were full of challenge,” she said of being a judge — a struggle to “keep my independence and professional standards.” While she was on the bench, Ethiopian officials routinely tried to influence her decisions, she said. But she refused to go along, despite pressure that sometimes ratcheted up to threats of death. Her most notorious act of defiant honesty was to free a former defense minister, Siye Abraha, who’d been accused of corruption on dubious grounds, charges that had already cost him years in prison. (Abraha himself was in the Mason Program at Harvard Kennedy School, from 2011 to 2012.)
From girlhood, Midekssa had been enthralled by the idea that Ethiopia one day could be an open democracy, despite the fact that such a concept remained entirely theoretical during her early life. She was born in 1974, the last year of a dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that had started in the 13th century, and grew up in the capital city of Addis Ababa during a military dictatorship that lasted 17 years, ending when she was a senior in high school.
Before the next dictatorship took hold, Ethiopia enjoyed a brief Golden Age of open political discussion, said Midekssa. “Naturally, I aspired to see a country in which individual liberty is protected — in which nobody is killed for their views.” read more