News Analysis: Ethiopian delegation on mission to repatriate detained nationals in Saudi prisons returns without success, suffering continues

By Etenesh Abera @EteneshAB

Addis Abeba- The delegation sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to address the issue of Ethiopian prisoners languishing in different cities of Saudi Arabia returned without success, reports said. The delegation led by the Minister of Finance Ahmed Shide to facilitate the repatriation of the stranded citizens failed to reach an agreement with authorities in Saudi Arabia, according to JIRRA, an Australia-based not-for-profit charity organization that has been actively following the issue. Nebiyu Sirak, a journalist and a community advocate who used to live Saudi Arabia said, “The return of of the delegation without success is embarrasing.”

In January, the MoFA said that the delegation requested the Saudi Arabian authorities to pardon those whose residence permits have expired and lift pending fines thereof. The delegation also asked for the immediate repatriation of those who can afford their travel costs. The MoFA claimed that efforts are underway to identify areas of priority to solve the issue and that the outcome of the talks in strengthening further trust and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia were “promising”. 

JIRRA estimates the number of prisoners in ‘tens of thousands’.  Citing community organizers in Saudi, the charity organization stated that Saudi Arabian authorities were willing to repatriate Ethiopian nationals by covering their travel costs. According to the community organizers the Ethiopian officials demanded that the Saudi Arabia government pay for the resettlement of the migrants once they reach Ethiopia, which the Saudi Arabia government refused and referred the demand to international aid organizations. The community organizers claim that this is why the delegation failed to reach an agreement with authorities in Saudi Arabia. 

The state minister for foreign affairs Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Lencho Bati and the president of the Ethiopian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs Mufti Haji Omar Idris were among the members of the delegation led by the Finance Minister Ahmed Shide. The MoFA hasn’t commented on the mission of the delegation since January as Addis Standard continued to receive harrowing testimonies, graphic pictures and footage recorded from inside Saudi Arabia prisons. 

Ahmed, a prisoner who spoke to Addis Standard by phone from a prison in Jeddah prison said that the situation is getting worse. He entered Saudi Arabia via Yemen and has spent the last 11 months in prison wearing the same clothes he was wearing when he was arrested. “I can say that all of the prisoners are wearing dustbin plastic bags for cloth and blankets.”

He echoed the testimonies of many of the prisoners and explained that over 300 people are held in a room big enough for about 60 people. “What is really heartbreaking is the situation of children and infants who are dying in the prisons,” he said, adding, “There are elders upto 70 and 80 of age suffering in the prisons.”  Ahmed noted that mental illness is ramapant among majority of the prisoners making suicide a very common occurence.

“I heard of an infant sucking on its mother’s dead body whom we didn’t know was dead. The police came in and took the baby away. I have seen the police continue beating up a prisoner long after they were dead,” Ahmed recounts some of the horrors he witnessed in the prison in Jeddah. 

Ahmed said that the prisoners were eager to hear from the delegation including high ranking officials and religious leaders  to offer the long awaited  solution, “They should let the public know the outcome of their discussion with the King of Saudi Arabia.”

In recorded audios sent to Addis Standard from a prison found in Riyadh, nursing mothers begged any one who hears the audio to help them pressure the Ethiopian government and pray for them. “ It has been nine months since I was arrested with my infant. As you can hear he is crying day and night. I don’t have anything to feed him and he is sick too. I fear that he might die,” a mother is heard saying. 

Addis Standard‘s repeated attempts to get updates from the head of the delegation Ahmed Shide, the spokesperson of the MoFA  ambassador Dina Mufti as well as the consulate general office in Jeddah were to no avail. AS

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