ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to hear about a man who was in an Ethiopian prison just a few months ago. Today, he's here in Washington meeting with government officials and drawing large crowds at academic conferences. The former professor is urging the U.S. to pay more attention to human rights abuses in a country that President Obama visited earlier this summer. NPR's Michele Kelemen brings us his story.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Bekele Gerba was released from jail just a few months before President Obama visited Ethiopia, a trip, he says, sent all the wrong messages.
BEKELE GERBA: He shouldn't have shown any solidarity with that kind of government that is repressive and very much authoritarian and very much disliked by its own people.
KELEMEN: The 54-year-old is a leader of a political party that represents the Oromo, one of the country's largest ethnic groups. Size, however, is no guarantee of a political voice. He lost his bid for parliament, and he says the Oromo are politically marginalized and are being pushed off their land as the government makes deals with international investors.
GERBA: The greatest land grabbers are now the Indians and the Chinese. In fact, there are Saudi Arabians as well. So many people are being evicted. Especially, the Oromos are being evicted as a result of this. So many people have become jobless and families destroyed.
KELEMEN: And those who do get jobs, he says, are paid a dollar a day, wages he calls a form of slavery. He's urging the U.S. to use its aid to Ethiopia as leverage to push the government there to give workers the right to organize.
GERBA: What Americans consumers can do is not to buy products which these hungry Ethiopians are producing. It is immoral to buy these things and these goods and to encourage the producers to continue in the future.
KELEMEN: Gerba didn't name any specific products, and most of them are exported to China, India and Saudi Arabia. He acknowledges that the U.S. doesn't have influence over those business dealings. The State Department wouldn't comment on his boycott call. Gerba's case has been featured in the department's annual human rights reports. A former foreign language professor, he was arrested in 2011 after meeting with Amnesty International researchers and sent to prison on terrorism charges.
The U.S. has criticized Ethiopia for using laws aimed at terrorists to crack down on political opponents. Gerba says he's a Christian and believes in nonviolence. And in his four years in prison, as he heard the cries of other of Oromo being beaten and tortured, Gerba spent a lot of time poring over the collected writings of Martin Luther King.
GERBA: I translated this book into my own language - the Oromo language - and it is now ready for publication.
KELEMEN: Bekele Gerba is not sure what he will face when he returns home from the U.S.
GERBA: Nobody's actually sure in Ethiopia what will happen to him anytime. Anytime, people can be arrested, anytime, can be harassed, can be beaten or killed or disappear. I don't know what will happen to me, but I'm determined to go back again.
KELEMEN: Gerba plans to return home next week and expects to start teaching again at Addis Ababa University. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.
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