In “ Obama’s Ethiopia stop irks human rights leaders ” [news, July 23], Girma Birru, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, claimed that journalists imprisoned under the country’s notorious “anti-terrorism law ” support groups that “instigate violence.” He did not say that any activist who refuses to join the ruling party can be jailed and tortured.

One of us, Merga Nebiyu Gelgelo, was a biomedical engineering student who founded an organization to support economic development in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Though he did not belong to a political party, he was detained under the anti-terrorism law and brutally tortured. Prison guards tied him to a cross, lit a fire under the cross and slid his body close to the fire. Mr. Gelgelo thought he would burn to death.

Ethiopia can work with the United States to combat terrorism in East Africa without torturing Mr. Gelgelo and hundreds more like him just because they do not support the dictatorship.

Andrea Barron and Merga Nebiyu Gelgelo, Washington

The writers are, respectively, advocacy consultant and member of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition.

Human rights advocates are not simple idealists who think human rights concerns trump economic and security interests in a zero-sum game. But juxtaposing human rights advocates with “experts” who think the administration “must weigh human rights against other important factors” creates an impression that activists “view foreign policy through the single lens of human rights.”

Instead, they largely agree with Samuel Berger, national security adviser under President Clinton, who said it was a mistake to “think of human rights and security as an either-or proposition.” Indeed, I doubt that any of the former government officials quoted in the article would argue that lasting security can be achieved in Ethiopia, Kenya or any other country without enduring respect for human rights.  

The real question isn’t whether or not to engage with these countries; it’s whether the U.S. government will use its considerable leverage, including state visits, to press for progress on the prerequisite for security and prosperity: human rights.

Elisa Massimino, Washington

The writer is president and chief executive of Human Rights First.