Law & Justice

Disquieting tales from Ethiopian jails

The country’s constitution entitles people under custody to a dignified treatment. Recent stories from its prisons reveal otherwise.

Kiya Tsegaye

Andualem Aragie


Following the infamous mass detention by the police in June 2011 of more than two dozen individuals, unsettling news of physical abuses against the detainees, particularly members of opposition political parties, are widely surfacing.

News of physical abuse emerged after the arrest on June 19, 2011 of Wubshet Taye, deputy editor-in-chief of the Amharic weekly Awramba Times, a newspaper known for its critical view of the Ethiopian government. However, details were sketchy and Wubshet preferred to remain silent after he first indicated that he had been beaten by his interrogators. In the following months, Awramba Times managed to publish a few details on the situation of its editor, but now the paper no longer exists after its founder Dawit Kebede fled into exile following the arrest of Wubshet Taye.

The mass arrest included the incarceration of other high profile members of opposition parties such as Andualem Aragie, secretary of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), the only opposition party that has one representative in the Ethiopian parliament. It also included rank-and-file members of other opposition parties, such as Zerihun Gebre Egziabher of the Ethiopian National Unity Party.

A few months ago, Zerihun sent an open letter from the Kality Prison detailing unsettling accounts of abuses he was sustaining during interrogations by the police. According to his letter, which identified names and positions of his abusers, Zerihun was subjected to vicious body harm and immeasurable coercion. Unfortunately, both the media and prison authorities ignored his plea.

In mid February news emerged that Andualem Aragie of the UDJ was assaulted by a fellow prisoner, who was originally a death-row inmate but was later sentenced to life imprisonment.  After his party brought the case into the attention of the public, the government was forced to give a statement but said Andualem was beaten by a fellow prisoner in what appears to be a personal squabble. His party and many people seriously dispute that. This magazine’s attempts to independently verify the situation proved futile – many of the detainees are kept out of contacts with the outside world. Prison authorities are not keen to discuss the matter with journalists either.

Detained, abused and deprived

On February 24 — ten days after the incident — the UDJ appealed to the media that Andualem was deprived of medical attentions despite the grave conditions he was in after the assault.

A few days later, Andualem released an open letter to the media in which he revealed disturbing accounts of his ordeal while incarcerated in the ‘maximum security zone” of the Kality prison, where he was confined two months after he was first detained.

Lost in this saga is the prison authorities’ failure to inform the public that while Andualem is a prisoner waiting for his trial, the prison fellow who had assaulted him is a convicted prisoner.

Shortly before this unfortunate development, teams from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission paid a visit to more than 35 federal and regional detention centers to asses “the provisions of food, water, health, sleeping rooms and beddings, entertaining services, administrative practices, regulations of visiting hours by families, legal and religious counselors and chatting rooms.” However, their findings do not reveal that Andualem Arage was sharing a tiny room with a convicted inmate, which is clearly against the constitution that guarantees “segregations of detainees according to their sex and nature of convictions.”

“The teams had also talked with the detainees on their prison conditions and with the prison officials about the speedy trials and remands, addressing congested sleeping rooms….as well as about equal training and other opportunities for female detainees and those convicted with their children,” the Commission said.

But according to Girma Seifu, chairman of the UDJ and the lone opposition parliamentarian in the national parliament, the teams have deliberately avoided contact with his party members in jail. Speaking to this magazine, Girma said he has also been denied access to his party members in jail and said losing his party secretary had taken a toll on his party.

A 2008 study conducted by the Commission on ‘Prisons Conditions in Ethiopia’ had revealed that the overwhelming majority of detainees in prisons were held on pending charges. Some prisoners reported being detained for several years without charges or trial. The report further admitted that authorities regularly detain people without warrants and deny prisoners access to counsel and family visits.  Four years later, not much has changed.

Unprotected by the law

Needless to say, Article 21 (1) of the constitution guarantees people under police custody to have the right to a dignified protection against any harm.  It further attests that prisoners have the opportunity to “communicate with, and to be visited by, their spouses or partners, close relatives, friends, religious counselors, medical doctors and their legal counsel.” Not to mention the provisions that declare “equal and effective protection without discrimination on grounds of race, nation, nationality or other social origin, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

The Ethiopian Criminal Code (Proclamation No.414/2004) under Article 110 also requires prison authorities to make sure that “prisoners who are condemned to serious seizure or special capture” be kept apart from prisoners who are not convicted and are awaiting their trials. It further requires concerned stakeholders including courts, prosecutors and the police to enforce the provisions of the Criminal Code.

Contrary to that, however, no charges were brought against Andualem’s assailant. Instead, UDJ expressed its concern that Andualem’s assailant has now been transferred to a cell where Natnael Mekonnen, another UDJ member, is currently held.

What is more troubling is that Federal Prisons Commission, whose main objectives are to admit and ward prisoners, has not given any viable response to the ordeals of Andualem and others who repeatedly complain of prison maltreatments.

The trials of Andualem and others who are facing terrorism charges continue to attract the interest of both the media and human rights activists. Their plights while under custody should equally be taken into consideration. After all, a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and not the other way around.

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