New Yorker Fears For Jailed Ethiopian Brother

Yalem Nega is like so many young people hustling to make it in New York.

She's got a job as a senior financial analyst at a prominent firm. She commutes from Riverdale, N.Y., and has dreams that have taken her far from her birthplace in Ethiopia.

But like many who have fled their homelands for opportunities and security elsewhere — every once in a while, Yalem is reminded of her homeland's instability.

"About three weeks ago my brother came to Maryland for a relative's funeral and to see his wife and children for three days. At that time, the government declared that my brother and Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam were responsible for instigating the April Addis Ababa university student protest," Yalem told "My mother called to beg my brother not to return back home. My brother replied that he had done nothing wrong and insisted on going back to Ethiopia. A week after his return they informed us that he had been arrested."

Today, her brother Berhanu Nega sits in an Ethiopian jail, along with Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, a Senior Fulbright Scholar. Both are accused of inciting student riots. The riots, which took place in April, left 30 dead, according to police estimates. Both men lectured at Addis Ababa University, and paneled a student discussion on basic rights. Reportedly, the riots broke out in the days following the panel discussion.

Both men deny they advocated violence for change and have been protesting their arrests with a hunger strike.

Finding Out what Happened

The day they were arrested was like any other: Berhanu was working at his office in Addis Ababa. Wolde-Mariam, who is in his 70s, was at a café near his home.

Makonnen Bishaw, of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council— an organization Wolde-Mariam helped found — is concerned the men are not getting due process. Held without bail, without formal charge, they have only recently been formally informed of the case being assembled against them.

Yalem is not apologetic for her brother's activism. At the time of his arrest, he was teaching pro-bono at the Addis Ababa University economics department. He served as president of the Ethiopian Economic Association. He founded the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute and was also serving as consultant for the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

And when he was just a student and the country was under Marxist rule, Berhanu advocated for progress. "During his freshman year at Addis Ababa University, he and two of my sisters participated in a student movement openly advocating for democracy and human rights," says Yalem. Berhanu was just 17 then, and the ensuing military crackdown forced him to flee Ethiopia, first to Sudan and then the United States to escape arrest.

After being granted asylum in the United States, he earned his BA in economics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. Then he got his economics Masters at SUNY Binghamton; followed by a Ph.D. in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York City. Ph.D. in hand, he decided to teach economics at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

Sticking Your Neck Out

Yalem says that while in the States, Berhanu helped put together a yearly conference called the "Horn of Africa," to talk about development in East Africa. He also founded a magazine discussing Ethiopian current events.

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