Ethiopia: In-Depth – Oromia’s Makeshift Prisons Where “There Are Neither Rights Nor Humanity”: Testimonies of Former Prisoners

Addis Abeba — Disappearance in police custody and remaining behind bars despite acquittal by the court of law became a modus operandi in the Oromia regional state.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission revealed in a report in May, illegal detentions were rampant in Oromia region, in police stations, irregular prisons, military training camps, or military bases. The report highlighted the prisoners, especially those who are in the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were arrested without due process of law.

“EHRC learned that they [OLF leaders ] are being illegally detained in various places for periods ranging from months to 2 years and some of them have been exposed to physical injuries and health problems due to improper treatment and beatings during the detention process”, the report said.

Addis Standard spoke to two former prisoners about the conditions of detention, the legal process, the process of transferring from one prison to another and how they were released.

Both witnesses requested to remain anonymous due to fears for their safety and fear of reprisal as they have received threats.

Arrests

Arrests based on political activities are reportedly carried out without legal process and court orders. Addis Standard’s reports on the arrest of the Vice-chairman of Finfinnee Renaissance Association and OLF political officer Batte Urgessa revealed this. It was no different for our two witnesses as both were arrested without a court order and one of them never got a day in court.

Dibaba (Name changed for fear of security) was arrested on the evening of 03 May 2021 from his residence in Addis Abeba by the police around 8:30 PM EAT. Dibaba was arrested by security forces composed of Federal Police, Addis Abeba Police and intelligence operatives. Dibaba said, “I and two others were taken to the Burayu Police Station in the Oromia special zone surrounding Finfinnee”.

Our other witness Tola (Name changed for fear of security) was arrested on 20 December 2020 from his residence in Kolfe Keranio sub-city in Addis Abeba. Tola described his arrest as scary as Federal Police, Oromia Police, Oromia Special Force and Addis Abeba Police raided his residence early in the morning.

Tola said, “They surrounded my residence around 6:00 AM local time. They broke into my bedroom while I was asleep. I woke up in shock and asked what it was and they started beating me,” adding, “then they searched for what they wanted and took every electronic device they could find.”

According to Tola during the search and arrest, he was threatened at gunpoint and given no explanation as to why the house is raided nor did they present any court document. According to Tola, the only explanation offered to him were in the form of accusations of being a member of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Army and funded by the then-rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), before ending up in Burayu Police station just like Dibaba.

Court Proceedings

Tola says that his official charge was collaborating with “Shane” to destroy the country. These charges were brought against him in the Burayu District Court eight days after his arrest in clear violation of his constitutional right to be presented to a court of law within 48 hours of his arrest. The court granted the police 14 days for investigation.

Tola spent 57 days going back and forth between the district court and the police station. “On 22 February 2021 the Burayu District court closed the file and acquitted me on the ground of insufficient evidence. However, the police kept me in custody despite the court’s decision,” said Tola.

Dibaba on the other hand never had a day in court. He recalled, “I was never brought to court. Once, during my detention at the Police Headquarters in Galan, and for the first time after 4 months of my detention there, investigators from the Oromia Police Commission called me to their office and told me that they wanted to take me to court. They told me that I am suspected of declaring the National Transition Government of the Oromia Region, that I had made speeches on Media and that I had incited people against the government. But they didn’t come back to me after that and they didn’t bring me to Court either.”

Tola filed an appeal a month and 15 days after being acquitted. However, the court didn’t review his case stating “the district court could not review his case”. Due to the failure by the courts of law to uphold their decision of acquittal, he was transferred to another prison.

In the EHRC report released last May, the commission said it has witnessed some of the prisoners in the makeshift prisons were released on bail, others their cases were closed and they were released by court order. While some have no charges filed against them at all, this was confirmed by regional prosecutor.

Imprisonment then Release

The report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission states that the illegal detainees are being held in the prisons of Burayu, Galan and Sabbata Police stations and the Special Police Camp in Galan. On the other hand, Addis Standard reported that the detainees were detained at the Oromia Special Forces camp in Awash Malkaasa.

Our two witnesses were held in four prisons during their detention period. They were both held at Burayu Police Station, Awash Malkaasa, Galaan Police Station and Galan Sololiya Military Camp. The witnesses say the process of transfer from one prison to another is not legal, it was rather in the form of kidnapping and disappearance as it was the case for OLF leader colonel Gemechu Ayana.

Dibaba was taken to Awash Malkasa with 400 other prisoners on the afternoon of 28 May 2021, after being detained at the Burayu Police Headquarters for about a month, where he shared a room with 168 others.

“There was no food, no drinking water and no bathroom, when people are sick they don’t get access to medical treatment it was a difficult situation we were in.

He described his stay at Burayu Police station saying, “There was no food, no drinking water and no bathroom, when people are sick they don’t get access to medical treatment it was a difficult situation we were in. Asking questions of rights, basic questions will earn one a punishment.”

Tola on the other hand says Burayu police station was better compared to others as it was possible to be visited by family members and lawyers. However, Tola said he witnessed gross human rights violations, even though he himself was not physically abused at Burayu Police station.

“They torture the youths they detain from the streets by calling them, Shane. They beat them badly and bring them to us at 2:00 AM local time, sometimes 4:00 AM at night. We calm them down as much as possible and massage the beaten body to give them momentary relief,” Tola described what he witnessed.

“There was a young boy whose ID was from West Wollega, the Oromia special force detained him from the streets and beat him badly. He was in bad shape when they brought him to us, we thought he was dead and started crying, miraculously he survived”, Tola said, adding, this instance shocked him among many other abuses he his fellow detainees sustained.

Tola, like Dibaba, was transferred to Awash Malkasa detention in May 2021 where he was held until July 2021.

“They torture the youths they detain from the streets by calling them, Shane. They beat them badly and bring them to us at 2:00 AM local time, sometimes 4:00 AM at night.”

Tola says the Awash Malkasa prison is in a rural area past Adama. He said the place is a camp of the Oromia Special Forces. Adding, “In Awash Malkasa, there is no family visit, it is not possible to see even people passing, it is very isolated.”

According to Tola, this detention centre used to be a chicken farm. He describes the room he was held in saying, “the room is 40-50 meters long and 15-20 meters wide. The house is built of blocks and the roof is covered with a thick metal sheet with no windows or vents. This has made the room extremely hot as it is located in the rift valley.” Since the room is overcrowded and has no ventilation “Our own breath suffocates us” Tola noted.

In addition to the room, he was detained in, Tola noted there are two additional rooms where senior university staffers from Jimma University and colonel Gemechu Ayana were held in.

“The diet was a loaf of bread and tea in the morning, bread and Shiro during the day, and the same in the evening. There is no clean drinking water. We are provided with water to water the plants in the city. He said there was no other choice and we would drink it.” Tola described the food and drinks provided to the hundred of detainees.

Tola said it was difficult to maintain personal hygiene as there were few toilets besides lack of water. “There are 16 bathrooms with no doors. When we use it, the police stand in front of us with guns. 400 inmates have to finish using the bathroom in an hour. No more than one minute is given to one person.”

Dibaba suffered fatal consequences as he failed to use the toilet within a minute. “On June 8, 2021, I went to the toilet and could not finish using it in the 1 minute they gave me, as a result I was beaten with Casket Shoes, parts of a gun and a stick, they did me a lot of harm. They have severely damaged my whole body including my spine. Despite being treated after I was released from prison, my back is still injured.”

Tola corroborated this incident and continued on describing the health problems they faced due to lack of proper sanitation. “There is nothing to keep clean[Soap/paper/water] so we leave the bathroom and go to our room, from where we head to breakfast without washing our hands” he added. “We had not washed our hands, face or body for 45 days.”

Lack of sanitation exposed many people to disease, Tola said, adding that, “The gates will not open at night and there are no other means to relieve when they get sick. If the prisoners knock the door they get punished. The police come in the morning and beat people with sticks asking who did this. Then they take everyone out and force them to kneel, then make them crowl on the ground face down.”

“One of the prisoners was sick and when they told him to run he said he couldn’t because he was sick, then they beat him with a stick and bruised his head saying how can he refuse. There is no such thing as rights and humanity there,” he said.

After a 3 month detention, in July 2021, Tola and Dibaba were transferred from Awash Malkasa to Galan Police station. They both spent about a month in Galan police station and then transferred to another detention center named Galan Sololiya.

“The people there spend days and nights being tortured. The guards torture them by hanging them with a cloth wrapped around their mouth. I shared a room with some of the people who were tortured like that.”

According to Tola Galan Sololiya is located just off the road between Galan town and Addis Abeba. Just like Awash Malkasa, Galan Sololiya was also far away from the community and isolated.

Dibaba says in Sololiya, the opportunity of a visit by families, relatives and a lawyer was never a possibility.

Tola describes this detention center, saying, “There are four rooms in the compound, the one I was held at was approximately three meters long and four meters wide. The room had a window in the back but it is blocked with metal sheet. There is no way for air to enter. More than 100 people were detained in those four rooms.”

Tola says the first thing he heard when he entered the compound was the screams of a people tortured by being hanged and those being beaten.

Dibaba on his part said, “It is very difficult to describe what unfolds in Galan Sololiya. The government gives 20 birr per person for food. Yet at that time, a Shiro was 35 birr, a loaf of bread was 7 birr, and a tea was 7 birr. From this, it is easy to imagine how difficult getting food might be.”

“There is no washing, once a week you wash for a few minutes. The door is closed through day and night, it will only be opened when it is time to use the toilet. It is not permitted to look left or right, one has to run to the bathroom and run back to the room,” said Dibaba.

“The people there spend days and nights being tortured. The guards torture them by hanging them with a cloth wrapped around their mouth. I shared a room with some of the people who were tortured like that. There are many who were carried to the bathroom because they can’t walk after the beating and torture.”

Tola corroborated the account of beating and torture witnessed by Dibaba saying, “In Sololiya, people were beaten a lot and were told to lie face down, then the guards will step on their feets and breaks it. Majority of the detainees in that camp cannot walk due to the injury to their feets.”

He continued “We sit in the room and hear someone being beaten, we try look through the opening under the door. When they beat someone and they thought he is too weak, may be even dead, they load him into an ambulance. People who leave in this way will not come back”

Tola says the guards show no remorse when torturing people as they consider it their job. “When they are ready to bring someone for torture, they close the door and order us to sit down and tell us they are about to start work.”

When they asked the Oromia Police Commission about the reason for their arrest, they were told that they were kept there by a higher authority, Tola said.

Dibaba and Tola were eventually released without being charged or convicted of anything and without enjoying a due process guaranteed in the constitution. Even after their release, they were threatened and told that they will be under surveillance. AS

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