Last week, Meles Zenawi was sworn in as prime minister of Ethiopia for his fourth term since taking power in the East African country in a 1991 coup. Days later, Birtukan Mideksa, a 36-year-old former judge and single mother—and the country’s most famous political prisoner—was released after requesting a pardon. Accused of inciting riots after the 2005 elections, Mideksa, who leads the biggest opposition party, had been serving a life sentence; Amnesty International has described her as a “prisoner of conscience,” and she’s drawn comparisons to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
While Ethiopia remains a Western ally, its human rights record has come under heavy criticism. Human Rights Watch called Mideksa’s release “just a first step,” adding that an unknown number of political prisoners have been jailed. The U.S. State Department has noted “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces.” Upon her release, Mideksa declared herself thankful to be back with her family, including her five-year-old daughter. When asked to comment on whether she’d be returning to politics, she replied: “Oh, this is not the time.”