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Back Home in Virginia, Former Norfolk State Professor to Return to Ethiopia


Freed from a prison in Ethiopia, Yacob Hailemariam is home in Virginia but said he will risk arrest again in his homeland to promote democratic rule.

“There is a chance we could go back to prison, but what are you going to do?” he asked. “We have made promises to the people, and we can’t renege on those promises.”

In August, Hailemariam was among three dozen dissidents released after their arrests in 2005. None had been charged in court.

Ethiopia freed the opposition leaders following international condemnation and strong pressure from the United States. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the target of the dissidents, announced the pardons.

While the opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, it did not win enough to topple Meles. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said it was marred by irregularities.

Hailemariam, 63, was a former U.N. special envoy and a former professor at Norfolk State University.

The human rights organization Amnesty International labeled Hailemariam and the other opposition members “prisoners of conscience.”

Since his release, Hailemariam and several Coalition for Unity and Democracy colleagues have spent six weeks visiting 12 cities in nine European countries. They thanked supporters and begged for continued pressure for a freer Ethiopia.

“We assured them we are not going to abandon the struggle for democracy, justice and the rule of law,” he told The Virginian-Pilot, which visited Hailemariam at his home here.

“Many people think now that we are released, everything is fine and dandy. It is not. There are many people in jail. And the objectives of the party have not been fulfilled,” he said.

Tegist Hailemariam had seen her husband once in more than two years. Now, with their son out of college, she’ll follow Yacob to Ethiopia.

“I am part of the struggle, too,” she said.

Yacob Hailemariam said it’s difficult to sell American-style democracy when people around the world hear reports of abused detainees in U.S. military prison camps.

“If the Bush administration can violate human rights with impunity, what prevents some petty African dictator from doing that?” he asked.

For now, he wants to see family and friends and to thank supporters from Norfolk State, churches, human rights groups and members of Congress who pushed for his release.

He said he plans to go back in two months to continue the “unfinished business” of peacefully instilling democracy.

Elections are scheduled in 2010.

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,

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