Virginian still paying heavy price for American values

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Somewhere amid the furrowed green hills of Ethiopia's capital, a Virginian sits in prison.

To be precise, he sits, or maybe lies, in the dimness of solitary confinement, in a jail once notorious for killing and torture.

But Yacob Hailemariam isn't there for murder, rape or robbery.

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No, this Virginia Beach, Va., resident and Norfolk State University professor sits in prison because of a dogged belief in democracy and a faith in the power of American values.

With him sit 20 other leaders of Ethiopia's pro-democracy movement. Several, like Hailemariam, are U.S. residents who have gone back to spread our cherished notions: freedom from oppression, fair elections, impartial justice and a desire to uplift the downtrodden.

Hailemariam is guilty, but only of believing.

He believed bold words like those in President Bush's 2005 inaugural address: &#8220All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

He believed Ethiopia's prime minister, who announced that his country would finally hold open elections in May.

He believed he could make a difference.

So this courtly grandfather, this former prosecutor who put Rwandan war criminals behind bars, this professor who shared his passion for law with thousands of students for two decades, ran for a seat in Ethiopia's parliament _ and won.

So did many of his pro-democracy colleagues. According to The New York Times, &#8220The opposition swept seats in Addis Ababa and finished strongly in other urban areas. Little-known candidates managed to oust several powerful government ministers.”

But authoritarian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party, in charge of vote counting, claimed it won 60 percent of parliamentary seats. Outgoing Zenawi acolytes stripped lawmakers of any real power; budgetary matters now rest solely in the prime minister's hands, and a parliamentary majority is needed merely to raise an issue for discussion.

To protest this sham of democracy, Hailemariam and his infuriated colleagues refused to take their seats and were thrown in jail for treason.

What is the United States, tireless promoter of democratic change, doing about it?

In response to my query Monday, a State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. government is &#8220deeply concerned”; that's diplomatic code for &#8220we don't care.”

Washington is tight-lipped. It considers Ethiopia a stable friend in East Africa.

But flinging the opposition party in jail for treason isn't the action of a &#8220stable” country. In fact, the long-term instability such a move creates in a dangerous part of the world isn't at all good for America.

&#8220A real person who stands for democracy should support what my husband is doing,” said Hailemariam's wife, Tegist, a medical lab technician in Virginia Beach. Their daughter in northern Virginia and son, a student at Stanford, are worried sick about their 61-year-old father. But they are proud of him.

We hear the words &#8220democracy” and &#8220freedom” a lot these days. But never having lived without them, most of us haven't a clue what they really mean.

Yet we encourage brave souls like Hailemariam, who've embraced our values, to spread them in a tangible way. When they do, America has a moral duty to back them.

There's more to democracy than universal suffrage. Even our old friend _ literally _ Saddam Hussein held elections. So do most dictators. But their 99 percent wins are neither free nor fair.

Democracy pivots on letting the people choose. Hailemariam, chased from his native country 25 years ago by a brutal dictator, came back to give them that choice.

Because of his belief in our ideals, he now sits in Makalawi Prison.

Free Yacob.

Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Readers may write to her at The Virginian-Pilot, 150 West Brambleton Avenue, Norfolk, Va. 23510, or send her e-mail at