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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2002

Immigration Canada Grants Ethiopian Refugee Landed Immigrant Status

Four years after fleeing to Canada and seeking refugee status with CAUT's assistance, former Ethiopian Teachers' Association acting general secretary Mulatu Mekonnen has received his landed immigrant papers.

"It has been a terrible experience for Mulatu," said former CAUT president Bill Graham who met Mekonnen at an Educational International higher education conference in Budapest in 1998 and alerted CAUT to the mortal danger Mekonnen faced if he returned home.

"With the unquestioned danger Mekonnen faced in Ethiopia as a leader of the country's largest union, I am amazed at the difficulties he has faced at the hands of Canadian Immigration authorities," Graham said.

"Fortunately CAUT was able to assist Mekonnen with legal services and financial support to see him through his ordeal. I cannot imagine what happens to refugees who do not have that kind of support."

Mekonnen fled Ethiopia after he was threatened with death if he criticized the government's education policy at the EI meetings. This is a threat he took seriously since other members of the ETA's executive had been murdered, and the association's president had been jailed on trumped up charges.

Since coming to Canada, Mekonnen has completed further graduate work at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and found employment as a teacher in Ontario. But he was prevented from working for more than two years because of delays in the immigration process.

At the same time CAUT received the good news about Mekonnen, it also learned the president of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association had been released after spending six years of a lengthy prison term in the central prison of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Taye Woldesemayat was a professor of political science at Addis Ababa University until authorities summarily dismissed him in 1992. He was arrested and thrown in jail in 1996 when he returned from an Education International meeting.

Woldesemayat was detained for two months before charges were laid and remained in detention for three years before being brought to trial. Court proceedings against him, which EI claimed "breached international standards for fair trial," ended in June 1999 with his conviction and sentence to 15 years imprisonment on conspiracy charges.

Education International, Amnesty International, the World Organization Against Torture, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions along with many other human rights groups and scientific societies protested Woldesemayat's imprisonment and campaigned vigorously for his release, saying he had been jailed on fabricated charges in an effort to silence his dissenting views regarding the government's education policies.

Woldesemayat was an outspoken critic of government policy to decentralize Ethiopia's educational system and a longtime activist for improvements in teachers' working conditions. Deemed an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Education International honoured him in 1998 with its Human Rights Award and in 2001 Amnesty International took up his case as a "special focus case."

Last month, Ethiopia's Supreme Court ruled Woldesemayat had been charged under the wrong article of the constitution and ordered his release.

Since the early 1990s the Ethiopian Teachers' Association has been the subject of government harassment and persecution. Criticism of government policy in education and demands for improved conditions for teachers were enough to bring the wrath of the government on ETA.

The strategy to crush ETA began with the seizure of its regional offices, freezing of its bank account and pension fund, dismissing union members from their teaching posts and establishing a rival pro-government teachers' union with the name of the original union. When this did not work, the campaign was stepped up with increasing arrests and harassment of ETA activists.

The International Labour Organization's committee on freedom of association has documented "very serious allegations of violations of freedom of association, in particular government interference with the functioning of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association and killing, arrest, detention, harassment, dismissal and transfer of ETA members and officials." It calls on the government of Ethiopia to "respect the life of trade union members, end harassment of the ETA and free imprisoned trade union members."

Ethiopia was one of two African states not to have ratified the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.