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Analysis: Ma’ekelawi! Why is Ethiopia still running a ‘Torture Chamber’ from the past?

Kalkidan Yibeltal & Tesfalem Waldyes

In Piassa, an area many consider to be the heart of Addis Abeba, rests the Ethiopian Federal Police Force Central Bureau of Criminal Investigation, otherwise known by its Amharic name, Ma’ekelawi (Amharic for central). Notorious for the sever torture detainees are subjected to inside its enclosures, Ma’ekelawi is a time defying institution which has been in use for more than half a century in Ethiopia, sadly for the same purpose.

During the dark days of the Marxist Derg regime between 1974 and 1991, Ma’ekelawi served as a place where thousands of dissenters were exposed to cruelties including disquieting torture and arbitrary killings. More than three decades down the line many of those who survived Ma’ekelawi live a life overshadowed by what happened when they were incarcerated, struggling to fully overcome the experience as they carry the burden of the darkest chapters in their lives.

Today nowhere is that history of horror visibly displayed than at the Red Terror Martyr’s Museum around Mesqel Square in central Addis Abeba. The Museum’s motto, “Never Ever Again”, speaks volumes about the atrocities committed inside Ma’ekelawi throughout the 17 years in power of the Derg regime.

The Red Terror Martyr’s Museum was built by the current regime in Ethiopia in honor of the people who perished during its predecessor’s infamous Red Terror campaign of 1977-1978. An estimated number of more than half a million Ethiopians were killed during that brutal campaign; and many of the victims have gone through the terrible experience of life at Ma’ekelawi.

For the survivors of the campaign, the Red Terror Martyr’s Museum is a place where solace and comfort can be sought. Some survivors who were approached by this magazine found talking about the horrendous experience they had gone through inside the fortress of Ma’ekelawi too much to bear, rendering our attempts to get their stories futile.

Fast forward, decades later and a completely different government that has ‘democratic’ written all over it, and that waged a civil war against a regime which partially depended on what happened inside Ma’ekelawi to extend its grip on power, the story of Ma’ekelawi remained intact.

Torture methodWofe-Lala – Derg’s favorite torture method

 ‘Chambers of horror’

Other than its frightening name, a great number of present-day Ethiopians know little about either the physical structure or the torture techniques applied inside Ma’ekelawi. But a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled: “They Want a Confession: Torture and Ill treatment in Ethiopia’s Ma’ekelawi Police Station,” revealed a chilling account. It documented in detail the scale of human rights abuses, unlawful investigation tactics, and detention conditions practiced between the years of 2010 and 2013. It accuses investigators of using coercive methods including several ways of torture to extract confessions, statements, and other information from detainees. Depending on their compliances with the demands of investigators, the report said, detainees are punished or rewarded with denial or access to water, food, light, and other basic needs.They are also subjected to sever physical tortures involving beatings and punishments by stressful positions such as hanging them with their wrists tied to ceilings, or being made to stand with their hands tied above their heads for several hours.

The US State Department’s annual Human Right Report on Ethiopia, which was released in April this year, also admits that “there were credible reports police investigators used physical and psychological abuse to extract confessions in Ma’ekelawi. Interrogators reportedly administered beatings and electric shocks to extract information and confessions from detainees.”

Both reports have been corroborated by several detainees (past and present) who were interviewed by Addis Standard for this story. (See selected stories here and here).

Many of them refer to Ma’ekelawi as “chambers of horror.”


“For many of the detainees Tawla Bet is a place of heartache, guilt and moral dilemma”

Inside the ‘Chambers of horror’

Ma’ekelawi has three different blocks with conditions significantly differing amongst them. Based on the locations and the facilities inside; the three blocks are known as Siberia, Tawla Bet & Sheraton.


The worst of the three blocks is called Siberia for none other than the cells’ freezing temperature.  Siberia alone has between seven and 10 cells at a time, all ranging from 16 to 25 square meters in size. (The number of the cells can go up and down depending on the number of detainees received at a time. And when detainees overwhelm the block, the management converts rooms that serve as storage places or communal rooms into detention centers).

One of the cells in Siberia, cell number 8, is partitioned into four separate cells and is used to keep detainees in solitary confinement. The rooms are just big enough to accommodate a mattress to sleep and a bucket to urinate on. They have no window and no light inside, which is why they are called “Chelema Bet” (Amharic for Dark House).

The rest of the Siberia block hosts communal cells, which are lined up along a long corridor facing one another. They do share similar features with “Chelema Bet”: the rooms are naturally dark except for a dim fluorescent light hanging on a barred, small window near each ceiling. The metal doors have small peepholes, often covered on cardboard, and are kept locked for 24 hours. Detainees inside these communal cells are allowed to have just 10 minutes of access to daylight per day.  The only other stuffs in each communal cell are mattresses, a bucket and a few food bowls. Up to 20 detainees (sometimes more) are forced to share each of the communal cells, which are not more than 4X5 square meters in size.

At one end of the corridor there are five filthy toilets and a shower located adjacent the toilets, all for communal use. While showering is allowed once a week, accessing the toilet is restricted to 15 minutes at a time, twice a day; and as if that is not enough discomfort the toilets don’t have doors to give detainees the privacy they need.

‘Tawla Bet’

Tawla Bet (Amharic for wooden house), is where those who are coerced to testify against fellow detainees are kept as prosecutors’ key witnesses. For many of the detainees Tawla Bet is a place of heartache, guilt and moral dilemma;  many of them are brought into a point of mental breakdown to testify against fellow detainees under sever duress.

Tawla Bet is also where female detainees are kept. Although most of the regulations are similar with Siberia, the doors in Tawla Bet cells can stay open during daytime, allowing detainees to sit at their doorstep and sometimes move from one cell to the other, a precious asset inside the two blocks.


Named after Ethiopia’s luxurious hotel, Sheraton is a block in which detainees are indulged with a movement as well as access to lawyers and relatives. They can also watch television – mainly broadcast of the state TV programs – at daytime.  Detainees who went through interrogations in Siberia and Tawla Bet and are waiting to be officially charged are the primary occupants of the Sheraton block.

The political element

Amha Mekonen, a prominent defense attorney who has represented some of the high profile defendants in recent years – including the much publicized case of Zone9 bloggers – is no stranger to the stories of Ma’ekelawi detailed in the HRW report. “Defendants who are detained at Ma’ekelawi often complain that they are subjected to inhuman treatments,” he tells this magazine. “Some of the defendants even manage to convince courts that they indeed have been abused and assaulted.”

One key problem Amha sees with Ma’ekelawi is that “the division initiates investigation without actually having any real ground to suspect that there is a crime that warrants an investigation. Many say this happens when the case is politically motivated. I am not sure whether that is true or not. What I am sure is the fact that there are instances when the division begins investigation without having sufficient evidence,” he says.

But for the HRW’s report the political element in Ma’ekelawi’s conduct is not easy to miss. The facility is the first stop for the majority of the country’s opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, and alleged supporters of ethnic insurgencies once all are taken into police custody, the report says.

Article 6/1 of the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission Establishment Proclamation 720/2011 gives the Federal Police the duty to prevent and investigate any threat and acts of crime against the Constitution and the constitutional order, security of the government and the state and human rights offenses. As a result the majority detainees in Ma’ekelawi are suspected of committing Federal offenses.

Furthermore, Ethiopia’s introduction in 2009 of the infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) has made Ma’ekelawi an important site for the detention and investigation of most of the politically sensitive cases, according to the HRW report. The provisions included in Ethiopia’s ATP seriously undermine basic legal safeguards against prolonged pre-charge detentions. Thus, once accused of offenses under this law, the facilities at Ma’ekelawi automatically become home to the majority of detainees in preparation for their trials, according to the report.

As of late the facility is overcrowded, Amha says. “I heard that they are transferring some of the detainees to Addis Abeba Police Commission nearby,” he says. “This shows that they are overwhelmed with cases. It might be criminal cases or something else. It might be something the government wants to suppress. It can be politically motivated,” Amha opines, but Tsegaye Ararssa, a Melbourne-based legal scholar, is unambiguous in his assertion: “the fact that the larger proportion of detainees are political prisoners and prisoners of conscience indicates that something is wrong with the way the politics is run in that country,” he told this magazine in a written interview.

One of the factors that made living conditions inside Ma’ekelawi hellish has always been the disproportionately big numbers of people forced to stay in a single room. “We hear that around 12 sometimes up to 15 people are detained in a cell which is no wider than 4 meter square,” says Amha.

Recently, Bekele Gerba, first secretary general of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) – and who is going through life at Ma’ekelawifor the second time –  made a passionate plea at a federal court that he and 21 other detainees were forced to stay at a “4×5 meter cell that included a toilet”.

The Constitution: Ma’ekelawi’s first victim

The operations inside Ma’ekelawi are not only against basic human rights but are at odds with the Supreme Law of the land, the constitution, as well as other laws the country governs itself by, according to Amha.  For Tsegaye the essential purpose of Ma’ekelawi is “regime security not human security” and as such it has become an institution that flouts the rights and security of citizens that are otherwise guaranteed in the country’s constitution.

Article 19 (2/5) of the Ethiopian Constitution, for example, asserts that people under police custody should not be forced to make confessions or make admissions which could be “used in evidence against them”. It nullifies any evidence obtained under coercion as inadmissible in the court of law. And article 24 of Proclamation No. 720/2011 prohibits the police from committing, “any inhuman or degrading treatment or act.”

In addition, regulation on the Treatment of Federal Prisoners 138/2007 (art. 3/1) clearly states that “no discrimination on grounds of gender, language, religion, political opinion nation/nationality, social status or citizen,” while art. 3/2 of the same Regulation guarantees “respect to [the detainees’] human dignity unless restricted by the penalties imposed on them.”

Nonetheless detainees at Ma’ekelawi are not only refused access to lawyers and relatives, but are subjected to tortures. “[Similar] tortures we have been hearing in the Derg period such as hanging a bottle of water on male genitals, electric shock, beating, being forced to stand for a long time, and other forms of prolonged interrogations,” are committed against detainees, says Amha, adding that defendants also experience self-incrimination and coercion to testify against co-defendants.  “What is more astonishing is the level of details and [organized narratives] we find on those confessions. It is as if they were [composed] by someone with a literary background. No one in his right mind incriminates himself in that manner,” Amha says.

Tsegaye reinforces Amha’s point. “In Ethiopian detention centers fact is not found, or discovered, as such; they are made. They are created in the course of the ‘investigation’”.

Many detainees are brought from remote areas all over the country. For them the pain is twice as much. “They are separated from their social background and support system. There might even be a language barrier. I am not sure if Ma’ekelawi is equipped with proper translation mechanism during interrogations,” says Amha. “And what is worse is after having gone through painful and life-altering months or even years at Ma’ekelawi, they might be acquitted and walk free,” he adds.

According to Tsegaye, “the fact that detainees come from afar disconnects them from their family and their support system thereof. But more importantly such distance from one’s place of residence becomes a barrier to access to justice. Physical distance, cultural distance, and linguistic distance are the three major barriers to access to justice,” Tsegaye said, adding that when a detainee is far removed from his/her own place of residence it “makes it more difficult to gather evidence even for the investigator.”  But because the main focus is on “infliction of pain on the ‘suspect’ rather than finding facts, often this fact is neglected.”

To ease this problem, if not to solve it, Amha suggests that other criminal investigation facilities should be established in regional states. Further explaining on this, Tsegaye says that in principle regional states can – and perhaps should – have their own system of criminal investigation. But their power would be confined to the crimes over which they have jurisdiction. (The States have legislative competence over criminal matters that are not covered by the federal criminal code.)

As per Proclamation No. 25/1996 (and its amendments since), the State Supreme Courts have jurisdiction over cases that were meant to appear in the Federal High Court, according to Tsegaye. “State High Courts would adjudge cases that are normally under the jurisdiction of the Federal First Instance Court. This practice suggests that, to this extent, the Ethiopian federal system is merely an executive/administrative federal system. (That is to say, it is a federal system where the federal government has a legislative power whereas the States have an executive/administrative power. The State institutions enforce or execute federal laws), Tsegaye explains.

Prisoners itemsBack to a lingering past

On February 26, 1977 44 prisoners were picked from Ma’ekelawi and were taken to the outskirts of the city where they were executed and buried in a mass grave, Babile Tola, a survivor of Ma’ekelawi, recounts in his book, “To Kill a Generation: the Red Terror in Ethiopia.” The youngest of the 44 was only 17 while many of them were aged between 17 and 26. The story of the secret mass execution was brought to light thanks to two prisoners who managed to jump and escape out of the police van on their way to their execution. One of them was the young Hilawi Yosef, who subsequently joined the armed struggle against the Derg regime.

After putting the stories during the armed struggle behind him Hilawi Yosef served in several senior positions in the incumbent’s government. Asked by this magazine to relate his story of the Ma’ekelawi Hilawi, who is currently serving as Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Israel, declined to return our email, but his story was narrated in Babile Tola’s historical book, as well as Girmaye Abraha’s “Yemiyanebu Egroch” (Amharic for “The feet that weep”), an apparent reference to the tortures that leave detainees’ feet bleeding.

In addition to Ambassador Hilawi Yosef, several other officials in the current government have been, at one point or another, detained at Ma’ekelawi during the Derg regime. It is a fact that leaves Ma’ekelawi’s current victims mystified and in endless search for answers on the logic of keeping and running an institution that many died fighting against.

So why is Ma’ekelawi still running?

For Tsegaye, the core reason for its existence as the prime source of state terror is the fundamental insecurity of the Ethiopian state. “There lacks to be a political will to demolish this prime example of the apparatus of state repression,” he says. The US state department report revealed that majority of mistreatments happen in “Ma’ekelawi and police stations rather than federal prisons.”

Amha carefully points at the existence of other facilities as a viable alternative to (at least) replace the deteriorating physical infrastructure of Ma’ekelawi, but agrees with Tsegaye that lack of political will is what is holding the change back. “You can find the evidence to that within a walking distance. The newly built Addis Abeba Police Commission has a much better criminal investigation block and facility. If there was a political will, the same improvements could have been done to Ma’ekelawi.

However, Amha says he doesn’t have any problem with the existence of a Federal Criminal Investigation facility. “My problem is with how it is being operated. [Also] for symbolic reasons, I would prefer it if it is somewhere else because of the horrible memories associated with that place.”

Tsegaye argues that the structure and even the name of Ma’ekelawi should have been altered to “reflect the changed politico-administrative structure of the country. Taking account of the federal set up, the name could have changed into ‘Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation’. That it hasn’t changed even in name already betrays the virtually non-federal political culture and the political practice of the country to date.”

Tsegaye is of the view that if there was a serious thinking into it, such a change – the change from a unitary system to a federal one – would have offered an “opportunity to move away from the dastardly, imperial, and barbaric practices that [Ma’ekelawi] represents and is a symbol of.”

One obstacle that hindered this change, according to Tsegaye, is the fact that Ma’ekelawi has never been put to the light of political and legal accountability. “It has never been publicly criticized (for its misdeeds) in representative political institutions (such as Parliamentary Oversight Committees); its power, finance, and personnel have never been put to a transparent audit system; the legal foundation of that institution, its competence (such as the matters it has jurisdiction over), its jurisdiction, and its responsibility framework has never been publicly accounted for.”

Aside from the visible lack of political will (see our editorial here), lack of skill in crime investigation is yet another factor that contributes to the brutal handling of detainees under police custody, Tsegaye adds. “Criminal investigation is a science, a profession in its own right. Detection requires a distinct set of skills that have to be put to use in the investigation of a particular crime.” From his stint as a lecturer at the Police College, Tsegaye remembers “being told that no one was trained in criminal investigation.”

Tsegaye is under no illusion that judging from its ultimate purpose as a tool of repression, its ideal location in the heart of Piassa (comforted by a general silence), and the total information blackout on the purpose and everyday conduct of the injustice inside its fortress, the current government is, unfortunately, poised to continue running Ma’ekelawi, despite it being a  “monument of state barbarity” and a “primary institution that serves as the true face of the repressive regimes – past and present.”

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