It was the spring of 2001 and 43-year-old Berhanu Nega was optimistic. His homeland, Ethiopia, was recovering from decades of conflict, he had just given a speech to university students about academic freedom, and now he had landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport for a business conference in Paris.
Then he turned on his phone. The students he’d spoken to hours earlier had staged a peaceful protest that the police answered with brute force and live ammunition, leaving 40 people dead. A week later, Nega was back in Ethiopia, behind bars.
So began a 14-year-long ordeal that has seen Nega, one of Ethiopia’s leading activists, arrested and jailed twice — once for almost two years — exiled to the United States and finally, condemned to death, in absentia. These days, the would-be mayor of Addis Ababa (he was detained right after he won the election) is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University. But Nega remains a prominent opposition leader: He is the co-founder of Ginbot 7, an outlawed political party that he leads from the sleepy Pennsylvania campus town of Lewis burg.
Of late, Ethiopia has been a darling of Western powers. The landlocked country is considered an island of stability in the otherwise turbulent Horn of Africa.