On October 2, I went to Alcatraz to see Ai Weiwei’s @Large exhibition, aptly described by Christopher Knight as “an always poignant, often powerful meditation on soul-deadening repressions of human thought and feeling.” One installation, “Trace,” features 176 portraits of people imprisoned because of their beliefs or affiliations. The sheer number of political prisoners portrayed, some familiar, most not, was overwhelming. Brief bios of each can be found on FOR-SITE’s website.
A few days later, I started researching one of them: Reeyot Alemu, a journalist imprisoned in Ethiopia, Africa’s second worst jailor of journalists. She was prosecuted under vaguely-worded and broad-reaching anti-terrorism laws passed by the Ethiopian legislature in 2009. The laws allow for the arrest of anyone thought to “encourage” parties labeled as terrorists. Based on no evidence other than her articles criticizing the Ethiopian government, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in Ethiopia’s notoriously ill-maintained Kality prison. She refused to admit guilt in exchange for clemency. Her sentence was reduced to five years on appeal, and she is currently pursuing an international appeal via the African Human Rights Commission.
Born in 1980, Reeyot Alemu taught at a high school in Addis and worked as a columnist for several local newspapers. In 2010, she founded her own publishing house and became the editor in chief of a magazine in which she wrote about political and social issues, focusing on the root causes of poverty and gender equality. According to her friends and colleagues, she thought she could make a difference in the trajectory of her people, and that her work might make things better. Her outspoken criticism on political and social issues was not viewed lightly by the government.
In 2011, Alemu was one of the first journalists arrested in a government crackdown on dissent as authorities in Addis Ababa, unnerved by the Arab Spring revolutions, rounded up prominent journalists, intellectuals and political opponents and linked them to a vague terrorism plot. Her arrest occurred several days after she published an article criticizing practices of Ethiopia’s ruling party. Branded a terrorist, Alemu had no access to legal counsel during three months of pretrial detention, and she reported being pressured to sign a false confession implicating co-defendants in crimes against the state. The court refused to investigate her allegations of mistreatment and denial of medical care in detention. At present, Reeyot’s condition is unknown; human rights organizations have not been able to communicate with her for several months.
Reeyot Alemu’s exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression has been recognized internationally. In May 2013, she was awarded the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, and in 2012, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) bestowed a Courage in Journalism Award. Now Ai Weiwei shines a light on her story. No amount of international awards and public outcry have succeeded in gaining her freedom thus far.
In Ai Weiwei’s artist statement accompanying @Large, he calls upon the 5,000 people a day who visit Alcatraz to reflect upon and amplify the message of his installations at Alcatraz. It remains to be seen if the work is able to accomplish his aims and impact his situation, or that of any of the people portrayed in Trace who are still imprisoned. As Christian Frock muses in her article in KQED Arts, “Can art affect change? If it could, would that be Ai Weiwei’s ultimate artwork — or a great shift in thinking about what art can do, or both?”
I hope it can.
For more information about prisoners of conscience, visit Amnesty International. I found petitions to sign on behalf of Reeyot Alemu on PEN and Change.org and will be posting an update as soon as there is any news on her condition and appeal. Reeyot’s address on the postcard is “Reeyot Alemu, Kaliti Prison, Addis Ababa, c/o Prison Administration, PO Box 2436, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will be on exhibit until April 26, 2015. Entry is free with a ticket to Alcatraz ($30).
Update: Reeyot turned 35 in Kaliti Prison on 1/21/15. Her condition and the status of her appeal remain uncertain.