Six years ago, Zelalem Kibret’s activism prompted him to visit prison; less than two years later, it landed him inside.
A lawyer and then-professor of law at Ambo University in Ethiopia, Zelalem first visited a jailed politician in the infamous Kaliti Prison in 2012, hoping to raise awareness about people arrested for challenging the status quo. In 2014, Zelalem himself was behind bars for speaking up.
That year, as part of a blogging collective called Zone 9, Zelalem and his colleagues, seven men and two women in all, had organized online campaigns urging the government to honor the rights promised in the country’s constitution. The group — two attorneys, a mathematician, an economist, an engineer, a journalist, and three information technology experts — met with jailed journalists and politicians, called for freedom of expression and an end to the torture of political detainees, and asked Ethiopians to share with them their hopes and dreams for their country. The effort angered government officials, Zelalem said.
“We are not asking for this law to be repealed, this law to be passed. Just respect the constitution. Fortunately, we have a very wonderful constitution, but no one cares about it,” said Zelalem on a recent afternoon at Harvard, where he has been a Scholar At Risk, supported by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
Zelalem knows firsthand Ethiopia’s record of human rights abuses. In 2012, he said, he was grabbed off an Ambo street by members of the National Intelligence Security Service, who locked him in a small room and interrogated and tortured him for hours. “Why was he criticizing the government?” and “Who was sponsoring his subversive activities?” he recalled his captors demanding. They repeatedly threw him to the floor, whipped him with a power cable, and beat his knees with the butt of a pistol, said Zelalem. When he was released, bruised and bloodied, he couldn’t walk for days.
“It was so terrible.”
But it wasn’t uncommon. Growing up in Ethiopia, Zelalem had long been cautioned about speaking out. “You have to be careful,” warned his parents, who had friends killed or exiled during the nation’s brutal communist dictatorship that lasted until 1991. As such, they were hesitant to express their political views.
But certain influences planted an early seed of curiosity in their son. Ethiopia’s longstanding ties to the Soviet Union meant Zelalem’s boyhood home was populated with Russian literature translated into Amharic. Works by the likes of Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy filled the family bookshelves, along with a Marxist dictionary — “a world book from the communist point of view” — with descriptions of political, economic, and philosophical ideologies. His older brother, also a lawyer, fueled his interest in learning. But it was a contested election in 2005, the year he turned 18 and was first eligible to vote, that made Zelalem’s interest in politics really take hold.