Asrat Woldeyes is a 68-year-old internationally renowned Ethiopian surgeon who pioneered medical education in his country and was dean of the medical school there. In 1992, during a visit from Rep. Harry Johnston (D-Fla.), he criticized left-wing dictator Meles Zenawi for breaking his promises to allow democracy in Ethiopia. Three days later, this elderly doctor with a heart condition was arrested on trumped-up charges of "inciting rebellion."

At his trial, witnesses against Asrat recanted and complained of government coercion to perjure themselves. The doctor was offered his freedom if he would stop speaking out about democracy. His courageous refusal so far to do so cost him four years in jail. Asrat has emerged as Ethiopia's most popular public figure and its symbol of democracy. He would probably be president of Ethiopia today had not Meles imprisoned him before the election.

Amnesty International describes Asrat as "a prisoner of conscience who should be released immediately." The U.S. State Department asserts the doctor's case should be decided by the Ethiopian judiciary. Human rights groups say the Ethiopian judiciary is a tool of the dictatorship.

Asrat symbolizes the dilemma faced by Ethiopia's foreign supporters, particularly the United States. At issue is how to move Meles Zenawe toward democracy at a time when he brings some measure of order to a chaotic part of the world and cooperates with the West on famine relief and resistance to Sudanese-based Islamic fundamentalism. Meanwhile, ethnic cleansing, tribal division, repression of political parties, human rights violations and anti-American sentiment increase each year of Meles's regime.

Besides rigging the national election and new Constitution in its favor, Meles's government has seized ownership of all land in the country. Farmers unable to own, bequeath and borrow against their plots will abandon them to erosion when the next big drought comes and migrate to the overcrowded cities, exacerbating both famine and international dependence.

Aid donors, reluctant to subsidize Meles's failed '70s socialist policies, are withholding millions in desperately needed assistance until Meles changes or is replaced. The absence of democracy thus undermines the very goals the international community seeks to preserve.

Asrat and his followers -- despite state-pon\sored murders, frame-ups, torture, arrests and "disappearances" -- have pledged themselves to nonviolence. This rarity in African politics should be rewarded generously by the international community as an example to other regional trouble spots. The failure to do so strengthens militants in a tinderbox region. International passivity in the face of the Meles dictatorship also encourages other African tyrants to hang tough.

The United States can do little, but it should do what it can. It could start by adopting Amnesty International's classification of Asrat as a political prisoner. To its credit, the State Department recently agreed to review the trial transcripts. President Clinton or Anthony Lake -- the only two officials who matter in this instance -- can raise Asrat's case privately with Meles and, if need be, speak out publicly on his behalf.

America might, incidently, demonstrate that it does not take kindly to having meetings with its members of Congress treated as a felony. Asrat's imprisonment is a slap in America's face.

The Ethiopian opposition, for its part, must realize that America is not going to rescue it. It should unify and increase its resistance activities short of violence.

Democracy in Ethiopia could bring a government with more rational economic policies, possibly saving hundreds of thousands of lives. It would lessen that country's foreign dependence and improve regional stability. But democracy and reconciliation of this dangerously divided nation are impossible as long as Asrat remains in jail. His heart condition worsens every day, and he remains without adequate medical attention.

More spurious charges have been piled on -- treason, conspiracy to jailbreak, even contempt of court -- ensuring he will stay behind bars indefinitely.

Tougher action against Meles now will be painful, messy and may cost lives, but these small dictators have a way of becoming entrenched.

The longer the inevitable confrontation is delayed, the higher will be the ultimate price in violence and suffering. The writer is an American adviser to the All Amhara People's Organization, an opposition party in Ethiopia.