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.

"A wonderful person, a wonderful colleague," says Bucknell professor of Economics Jean Shackelford, she remembers the "legendary book drive" Berhanu organized to send books to Addis Ababa University students. Besides "the wonderful thank you's" sent back from the Ethiopian university students, Shackelford recalled Berhanu as a "considerate, open-minded and bright" teacher.

"Our faculty are particularly concerned," says Bucknell English department chair, John Rickard.

"It was inconceivable that Berhanu was fomenting a riot," adds Dean Baker Ph.D., now co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He says that when he worked on the search committee that hired Berhanu at Bucknell, and in the years that they taught together and became friends, "it wasn't the way he thought."

Yalem came to the United States in 1994, the same year Berhanu returned to Ethiopia with his wife Nardos Minasse, who is an optometrist.

"He was delighted about the change of power [in Ethiopia]" and was "committed to democracy," Baker says. "He understood, there's been a lot of violence, he understood the risks, he went back with hopes that there was a qualitative difference."

Their new life in Ethiopia worked for a while, but for Minasse, the obstacles and security concerns became too much so she returned to the United States with their two children. But Berhanu stayed.

Blood Ties

Human rights observers see some progress in Ethiopia. Journalists imprisoned since 1997 have been freed. But Yalem has already lost a sister, "I don't think my mother will be able to cope with the loss of another child," she says. "At age 19, she was murdered by the previous military regime in Ethiopia."

However, thanks to the Internet, family and friends are supporting each other. And they're doing it over two continents. Her four brothers are helping back home in Ethiopia, and her five surviving sisters are pushing the issue in the United States, petitioning congressmen and UN officials.

Jose Diaz, U.N. spokesman for Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, speaking from Geneva, says complaints filed on behalf of the two men are now part of a "Confidential Complaints Procedure" for which he "cannot divulge any more details" while the cases are under consideration.

The European Parliament albeit in committee — passed a resolution calling for their release. Action by the full parliament is pending.

In the end, Yalem says, slicing through diplomatic doubletalk, "I want him to know that I love him very much. His whole family loves him. I also want him to know that his family and friends are on his side and supports [sic] him totally, and that we are committed to securing his quick release from prison."