(Reuters) – Ethiopian opposition politicians were barred from visiting their jailed leader, Birtukan Mideksa, Saturday after a U.S. State Department human rights report said her mental health has deteriorated.
Eight opposition politicians asked for access to Birtukan at the prison. They were met by prison head Abebe Zemichael and, after a heated argument in the street outside, were refused permission for not being family members.
Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) leader Birtukan, a 36-year-old single mother, is seen by analysts as the biggest threat to the almost 20-year-rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia holds parliamentary elections on May 23.
“We are here today because we are worried about her health and we want to see for ourselves what her condition is,” senior UDJ official Seye Abraha told Reuters at the entrance to Kaliti prison, 20 km from the capital Addis Ababa.
“Only her mother and her daughter have been given access to her. They bar friends, they bar party colleagues, no lawyer, no independent doctors.”
Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005 ended with violence after the opposition said the government fixed its victory.
About 200 protesters were killed by soldiers in riots and opposition leaders, including Birtukan, were jailed for life after Meles said they were trying to oust him.
They were pardoned and released in 2007 when they signed a letter admitting to provoking the violence. Birtukan was sent back to prison in December 2008 after she denied responsibility for the trouble and said she did not ask for a pardon.
The U.S. State Department’s human rights report for 2009 said this month: “There were credible reports that Birtukan’s mental health deteriorated significantly during the year.”
It called her a political prisoner, echoing rights groups.
“She is severely depressed,” a relative who did not want to be named told Reuters. “We need to get an independent doctor, not a prison one, to see her.”
Ethiopian law permits friends and lawyers to visit prisoners.
Meles has said Birtukan was in “perfect” health, but that diplomats and journalists would not be allowed to visit her.
Analysts say Meles’ Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition will win the May 23 poll.
The opposition says this is because they are harassed and jailed. The government says the opposition is trying to discredit a poll it has no chance of winning.