by Reeyot Alemu
My name is Reeyot Alemu. I am a journalist and former prisoner of conscience in Ethiopia. I was a columnist for Feteh (Justice) newspaper, editor for Addis Press and was also the founder and columnist of Lewt, (Change), a monthly magazine. Like the fate of any media outlets critical of the repressive government, all the aforementioned publications were forced to close down and most of the journalists who worked for them have been jailed, tortured or exiled.
The reason why I am writing to you today is not to express self-pity. It is because I strongly believe that the World Health Organization (WHO), an important global institution, is on the verge of falling into the abyss of scandal. I fear that WHO’s reputation will be tarnished and credibility questioned if it elects Dr. Tedros Adhanom. The fact that Dr. Adhanom, one of the top human rights violators making life miserable to the people of Ethiopia, has managed to be the last three candidates, bidding to take over the position of Director-General, is very troubling and alarming.
I was arbitrarily detained on June 21, 2011 until I was freed without explanation in July 2015, a few days before former U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia. Abused, tortured and mistreated, I spent over four years or 1480 days of my life in the notorious Kalati jail. Like most journalists thrown in jails, I was charged with “terrorism” offenses and was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.
During my unjust incarceration and solitary confinement, I became gravely ill from an excruciating breast malignancy, which was feared to grow into cancer. But I was denied painkillers let alone getting medical care. They clearly wanted to break me both physically and mentally. Even if I was asked repeatedly to admit the crimes I didn’t commit and beg for forgiveness, I refused to compromise my convictions for freedom of expression.
As a result of the injustice I had faced for writing articles critical of human rights violations and abuse of power, I counted and calculated the 2,131,200 minutes I was forced to spend in the dungeons of injustice. With the burden of injustice and unimaginable pains I had to endure, each minute was like a long day.
As someone who deeply cares not only about the present generation but the generations to come, I believe that we need visionary leaders that truly care about the wellbeing, rights, peace and security of every human being on earth.
The facts I, a victim of Adhanom’s regime, know about him and the polished “visionary” that well-paid PR firms like Mercury Public Affairs are trying to sell at a global stage are totally different. The man I know is a human rights violator who is still a member of the Executive Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The nine-member executive committee is the most powerful group in the country that makes terrible decisions like mass detentions, extrajudicial killings, land grab and even who to label a “terrorist”, like most journalists in jail. As it is widely known, TPLF imposed highly discriminatory and destructive policies to implement its divide and rule policies in Ethiopia.
Dr. Adhanom was also a cabinet minister of the ruthless dictator Meles Zenawi for nearly a decade. Zenawi was not alone but used accomplices and enablers like Dr. Adhanom. After jailing opponents and crippled civil society, Dr. Adhanom has defended everything the regime has done as the foreign minister of this ruthless regime besides being accused of hiding cholera outbreaks during his ministerial tenures.
He is still a member of parliament. The 547-seat parliament is totally controlled by Dr. Adhanom’s oppressive ruling party. During the last election in 2015, the ruling junta claimed to have “won” by 100 percent of the stage-managed elections.
Dr. Adhanom, in tandem with Zenawi and other top members of the incumbent tyranny, played a key role in the promulgation and imposition of the so-called Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 and Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009. The former was deviously crafted to punish dissidents and journalists and the latter has been effectively used to destroy civil society organizations including nonprofits that had growing influence in areas of human rights, accountability and justice.
Under Dr. Adhanom’s “anti-terrorism law”, no terrorist has been convicted. But thousands of activists, dissidents and journalists have been victimized by the unjust draconian law. I too was convicted of being a terrorist. The evidence they presented in their Kangaroo court was nothing but the pictures I took for the purpose of reporting and the crtical commentaries I published in newspapers. The fate of so many courageous journalists such as Eskinder Nega, Wubishet Taye, my friend and colleague, former editor of Fitih newspaper and publisher Temesgen Desalegn, who are still languishing in jail, is all the same.
I believe that appointing Dr. Adhanom, who is an active participant in human rights violations and crimes against humanity, is ignoring the pains and suffering of the oppressed people of Ethiopia. As you know, political violence has been one of the primary causes of illness, disability and death to people around the world. I know from my own painful experience that Dr. Adhanom, as a core member of the ruling tyranny, is responsible for the crimes being perpetrated against innocent and defenseless civilians. I do hope that he will be held to account to the crimes he has committed as key member of a tyrannical regime.
I now live in the United States as an exile. I am haunted by the flashback of the hellish experience I went through under Dr. Adhanom’s tyranny. I also feel the pain and suffering of my people enduring mass detention, torture, extrajudicial killings and all sorts of crimes against humanity by a regime that Dr. Adhanom is serving with unflinching commitment. All the crimes they are perpetrating are well documented by many global human rights organizations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists. He does not represent anyone but a repressive regime. I am certain that this fact is unmissable to any responsible person.
The Constitution of WHO declares: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”
As an active and willing participant of crimes against humanity, Dr. Adhanom’s record speaks for itself in that he has neither the commitment, integrity, heart nor moral compass to uphold such a high standard constitution. Entrusting a human rights violator to lead the WHO is like putting a stamp of approval to those who abuse their power and influence in the pursuit of their narcissistic and parochial interests.
I, hereby, appeal the World Health Assembly and leadership of the WHO to reject the candidacy of Dr. Adhanom. Someone like Adhanom, who played a key role in causing the suffering and abuse of fellow human beings can never have the caliber and integrity needed to lead a global institution whose mission is the attainment of the highest possible level of health by every human being.
After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We cannot overlook not only the injustices across the world but also the perpetrators and their enablers that cause so much pains and suffering.
I thank you so much for your attention!
With highest regards Reeyot Alemu