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Tuesday, 11 June, 2002, 18:47 GMT 19:47 UK
Freed Ethiopian dissident to fight on
Dr Taye Wolde Semayat
Dr Taye denies conspiring against the state

Dr Taye Wolde Semayat looks much older than his 48 years.

Although he grins happily and jumps up to greet me as I enter his office, his appearance is weaker and much frailer than the pictures I had seen of him taken years ago.


I was tried and sentenced by a kangaroo court which was simply at the beck and call of the government

Dr Taye Wolde Semayat
It is hardly surprising considering he has just spent almost six years in Ethiopia's state prison, under what he describes as "very harsh and cruel" conditions.

Professor of political science at Addis Ababa University and president of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), Dr Taye was Ethiopia's most well-known political prisoner until his release last month.

Supported by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience, Dr Taye has gained mass support from pressure groups at home and abroad, who lobbied his case and demanded his release after his arrest in June 1996.

'Kangaroo court'

Dr Taye was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for forming an illegal political party and conspiring against the state - a charge that he continues to deny.

"I was tried and sentenced by a kangaroo court which was simply at the beck and call of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi," he says.

"All I have ever done is highlight the suffering of the Ethiopian people and the poor educational policies of the government."

Last month, the Ethiopian Courts ruled that Dr Taye's 15-year sentence should be reduced by nine years and on 13 May he was released, much to the delight of his thousands of supporters.

Now reinstated in his former job as president of the ETA, he sits in his modest, sparsely furnished office, trying to adapt to his new-found freedom.

Prison ordeal

For varying periods over the past six years, Dr Taye claims that he was constantly harassed and intimidated by the prison guards.

He was, he says, shackled in solitary confinement, confined to a fetid cell with five other prisoners, disallowed to talk to his lawyer in private and permitted to see his family for only 30 minutes once a week.


No one is treated harshly in prison

Government official

"Medical care is not considered a priority for inmates, especially political prisoners, and I can name several people who have died due to neglect," he said.

The Ethiopian authorities however deny the accusations, with one official who wished to remain anonymous saying prison conditions met "international standards".

Amnesty International says the true reason for Dr Taye's detention was his peaceful opposition to government policies and his legitimate teachers' union activities.

His supporters cite his opposition to the government's policy of decentralising Ethiopia's educational system.

He called for a unified educational system and for improvements in teachers' working conditions.

Undeterred

Dr Taye describes education as the "bloodline" of Ethiopia.

"Ethiopia is lagging behind the rest of the world, who have already embraced the information age," he says.

In Ethiopia, he points out, 250 children could be crammed into one classroom.

Dr Taye says that being in prison has not intimidated him and he plans to continue his campaign to work for the betterment of his colleagues.

"Unless the life of teachers in Ethiopia is improved, there is no hope for our children," he says.

See also:

05 Jun 01 | Africa
21 Mar 01 | Country profiles
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