At noon every Sunday an old Toyota sedan donated by supporters of Ethiopia's most famous prisoner pulls up near a jail on the outskirts of the capital. A 74-year-old woman in a white shawl and her four-year-old granddaughter – the only outsiders the prisoner is allowed to see – step out for a 30-minute visit.
Most inmates at Kaliti prison want their relatives to buy them food. But Birtukan Mideksa, the 35-year-old leader of the country's main opposition party, always asks her mother and daughter to bring books: an anthology titled The Power of Non-Violence, Bertrand Russell's Best, and the memoirs of Gandhi, Barack Obama, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political prisoner to whom she has been compared.
Mideksa, a single mother and former judge, was among dozens of opposition leaders, journalists and civil society workers arrested following anti-government demonstrations after the disputed 2005 elections. Charged with treason for allegedly planning to overthrow the government – accusations rejected by independent groups such as Amnesty International – the political leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment. After spending nearly two years in jail they were pardoned, but Mideksa was rearrested in December 2008 for challenging the official version of circumstances that led to her release. Her pardon was revoked, her life sentence reinstated, and she was sent to solitary confinement for several months before being moved to a shared cell.
"My child did not do anything wrong – she had no weapon, she committed no crime," said Almaz Gebregziabher, Mideksa's mother, in her house on a hillside in Addis Ababa after visiting her daughter one recent Sunday. "I want the world to know that this is unjust."
Many Ethiopians agree. Mideksa's treatment has turned her into a local heroine, and cast a shadow over elections due in May. Opposition parties and international human rights groups say the case is clear proof of the authoritarian government's stalled progress towards democracy.
It is also evidence, they say, of the double standards of western donors when dealing with Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, a major aid recipient and ally in the "war against terror".
While Zenawi makes no attempt to hide his disdain for Mideksa – talk of her release is a "dead issue", he said last month – he denies the case is political.
But a look at her history with his regime and at her popularity particularly among young voters –shows why few people outside his party believe him.
Born into a humble family, Mideksa excelled at university and was appointed a federal judge in Addis Ababa. In 2002, she was assigned a case involving Siye Abraha, a former defence minister who had fallen out with Zenawi and was accused of corruption. Mideksa released him on bail – a rare show of judicial independence in Ethiopia – but when Abraha left court he was immediately rearrested and jailed.
"That case showed her courage, her sense of justice," said Hailu Araya, vice-chairman of Mideksa's Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. "But the government took this an affront."
Mideksa's relatives said she then joined opposition forces before the 2005 elections and was then arrested and released in 2007.
Upon her release her status as a rising political star soon became evident.
In her home neighbourhood they were big celebrations, and supporters chipped in to buy her the Toyota. Mideksa's mother tried to persuade he to go into exile, as some other opposition leaders had done.
But she refused, according to her cousin, Eyerusalem Yilma. "Birtukan always said: 'There's no politics from a distance'."
She set about bringing together the various opposition groups from 2005, and helped found the UDJ of which she was elected chairperson. Her age and gender made this extraordinary, not just in Ethiopia, but in all Africa.
"She is charismatic, young, smart and courageous. And that makes her a threat to Meles, of course," said Bulcha Demeksa, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, an opposition party in coalition with the UDJ.
Mesfin Woldemariam, 79, the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, who was jailed alongside Mideksa in 2005and wants the opposition to boycott the election if she is not released, said she had another key attribute – her lack of baggage. "Many young people feel they need a new political class, outside of the influence of this Marxist-Leninist government, and the previous Derg and Haile Selassie regimes, in which many other opposition leaders featured. They want a clean slate and Birtukan fits in with that," Woldemariam said.
In November 2008, while in Europe, Mideksa told an audience of Ethiopians in Sweden that her pardon had come as a result of negotiations rather than an official request made through legal channels. While people who were in jail with her the first time say this reflected the truth, the government said it equated to denying asking for a pardon, and sent her back to jail. Although Mideksa tries to assure her mother and daughter that she will be out soon, the strain on them is obvious. Gebregziabher says: "My eyes have almost gone blind from crying," and that Mideksa's daughter Halley asks: "Isn't this enough – why don't you come home mum?" during each weekly visit.
But there is no sympathy from the government. "She was advised to obey the rule of law," said Teferi Melese, head of public diplomacy at the foreign affairs ministry in Addis Ababa. "But she broke the conditions of her pardon, thinking her friends in the EU could get her released."
That foreign embassies, including Britain's, which have been refused permission to visit Mideksa, have barely made a public complaint about the case appears to back opposition complaints that when it comes to Ethiopia, as opposed to say Kenya or Zimbabwe,donors favour stability over democratic reforms or human rights.
One reason is Zenawi's status as a western ally in the horn of Africa, where Islamists are trying to take over neighbouring Somalia. Another reason, somewhat incongruously, is the huge amount of aid money that flows into Ethiopia and helps donor countries move closer to meeting their international aid commitments.
"The government says the more we make noise the more difficult it will be to get her [Mideksa] out," said one western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for one person? No."
A devisive government
Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991 when his rebel army ousted the brutal Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite presiding over strong economic growth, improving health and education services, and developing a multi-party system, Meles's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) remains hugely divisive.
The EPRDF includes four ethnically-based parties, but the strong dominance of Meles' Tigray ethnic group, who constitute only 6% of the population, over all key aspects of government is one source of great resentment, particularly among Amharas and Oromos, who together account for 60% of the country's 80m people.
Another is the ruling regime's repressive governing style. Despite official, often Orwellian, denials – "We make it very easy for journalists in this country," Hailemariam Desalegn, the government chief whip, once said in an interview – there is very little press freedom, and civil society groups have been intimidated into silence.
The public discontent was obvious in the 2005 election, when opposition groups swept the seats in the capital Addis Ababa and made gains nationwide. In anti-government demonstrations that followed police killed at least 193 civilians and tens of thousands of people were arrested. The EPRDF, which accuses opposition leaders of fomenting ethnic hatred, says it is confident that the upcoming election in May will be peaceful.