Horror stories of torture hound Ethiopia as it proclaims commitment to reform
Special to The Globe and Mail
with a report from Zoe Alsop
May 29, 2007
NEKEMTE, ETHIOPIA -- During the six months that 25-year-old Aman was detained in an Addis Ababa prison, he alleges, police kicked and punched him and kept him for weeks on end in a tiny cell with his hands bound as if always in prayer.
Then there was the day that Aman, a second-year law student at the time, went before a judge and found himself correcting her on the Ethiopian criminal code. She had granted prosecutors' request to detain him for three weeks of investigation, a week longer than the law allows.
"I could not have words to express the situation, it is so difficult," said Aman, who was never charged with a crime and eventually released.
"They appoint judges who have no legal knowledge of law, who learn about the law for six months and sit at the court."
This is the state of affairs in today's Ethiopia. Interviews with dozens of people across the country, coupled with testimony given to diplomats and human-rights groups, paint a picture of a nation that, despite government claims to the contrary, jails its citizens without reason or trial, tortures many of them and habitually violates its own laws. The government was also severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown in which tens of thousands of opposition members were jailed and nearly 200 people killed after elections in which the opposition made major gains.
But many Western governments that do business with Ethiopia, including Canada and the United States, maintain that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is committed to democratic and human-rights reforms. The United States has even worked with Ethiopia's jailers; the Bush administration recently acknowledged that CIA and FBI officials interrogated suspected terrorists there who had fled the fighting in Somalia.
Canada says that one of its citizens, Bashir Makhtal, is one of Ethiopia's prisoners. Although reports so far indicate he has not been tortured, Canadian diplomats say they have not been allowed to visit Mr. Makhtal. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also barred from visiting federal prisons.
People interviewed across Ethiopia recounted stories of torture: electric shocks, beatings with rubber clubs, police who held guns to prisoners' heads, mutilation or pain inflicted on the genitals.
One man said police arrested him because he played too much ping pong; they began to suspect that he was recruiting people to a rebel group while he played. Another described 17 days of electric shocks on his legs and back, followed by beatings with rubber truncheons. He never learned his crime, but suspects he was targeted for his refusal to join Mr. Meles's ruling EPRDF party.
"They took us turn by turn to a dark place, and they would shock us and say, 'What do you think now? You won't change your ways now? Do you want to be a member of our party now?' " said the man, Tesfaye. He refused to give his last name for fear of being rearrested.
Ethiopian officials dismiss stories of torture as lies, and have expelled many foreign journalists and representatives of human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The country's Culture and Tourism Minister, Mohamoud Dirir, recently accused the Western media of giving one-sided information "magnifying the negative."
Bereket Simon, a top adviser to Mr. Zenawi, echoed that theme. He said it's in the interests of rights groups to lie about the situation, and he rejected the idea that torture occurs in Ethiopia.
"No way. No way. No way. I think you know, these are prohibited by laws, by Ethiopian laws, ..." Mr. Bereket said. "In fact, we have been improving on our prison standards. We've been working hard to train the police forces, the interrogators."
Yet claims of the abuses are widespread. The U.S. State Department's 2006 human-rights report for Ethiopia cited "numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees." It included more than 30 pages of detailed accounts of violations, ranging from the beating of teenagers to arbitrary arrests to the banning of theatre performances that send the wrong political message.
European diplomats and employees of Western aid groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they keep quiet about abuses because they fear the government will freeze them out of aid work. About 2.8 million of Ethiopia's 75 million people depend on foreign food aid.
U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto said in an interview that he wants to investigate claims of abuse, but warned against making allegations without proof.
"There's a lot of misinformation about Ethiopia. I mean it's amazing," Mr. Yamamoto said. "The problem comes in trying to divide or separate what is fact and what's fiction, and trying to keep an open mind on every issue."
Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country, begins 10-day population count
The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Africa's second most populous country, Ethiopia, began a 10-day population count Tuesday, an exercise aimed at helping the government plan economic and social programs and help donors target their aid better.
Over 100,000 census officials fanned out across Ethiopia on Tuesday. The last census was in 1994 when officials found out there were 54 million Ethiopians in the country.
Preliminary results of the population count will be released in five months, and final results in 1 1/2 years.
"It is a huge activity especially in this country, where the majority of the population is not literate, where transportation is not adequate, and so many people live in rural areas," said Mekonnen Tesfaye, a census official and statistician.
According to the U.N. Population Fund's 2006 report, Ethiopia has 79.3 million people, ahead of Egypt with 75.4 million people. The most populous country in Africa is Nigeria, with 134.4 million people.
Most of the officials doing the population count in Ethiopia are school teachers. Schools closed three weeks early this year to allow them to prepare to conduct the census.
Ethiopia - Jijjiga police apprehended five persons
Jijiga, Ethiopia, May 28, 2007 (ENA) - The Somali State Police Commission said it has apprehended five alleged Eritrean regime (She`abia)-sponsored terrorists that threw hand grenade on the residents of Jijjiga town and its environs who were celebrating May 28. The cold blooded terrorist act killed 5 persons and injured 52 others.
The Police Commission told Ethiopian News Agency on Monday that anti peace forces and terrorists operating in the region with the assistance of the Eritrean regime threw hand grenade on Monday on 100,000 people who were celebrating the day at Jijjiga stadium.
The police force put under custody and was investigating those terrorists who inflicted grenade attack innocent civilians who were celebrating the day, the commission said, adding the attack was executed by the members of the self-styled Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is sponsored by the Eritrean government.
The attack killed five persons instantly, it said. Chief of the Somali State Administration, Abdulahi Hassan was one of the 52 persons who sustained severe and light injuries.
Two police members were among the deceased who were killed in cold blood, the commission said, 10 of the victims were seriously injured.
The injured were admitted to Kara Mara Hospital for medical treatments.
The attack, which is executed during the 16th celebration of May 28 that enabled the Somali people enjoy the right of self-administration, is the barbaric act of anti peace forces.
The terrorist attack of the anti peace forces to impede the on-going development and good-governance efforts of the Somali people can not reverse the gained victories of the Somali people, the commission said.
This is not the first act of the terrorist forces targeting innocent civilians, it said, adding the terrorists had recently killed Ethiopian and Chinese workers of an oil exploration company around the Abule area of the Degehabor zone.
The anti forces also executed similar attacks on hotels and recreation centers in Jijjiga town, it said, the attack of anti peace forces can not deter on-going development endeavors in the regional state.
The police force was apprehending the culprits at present, the commission said and calls upon the public to continue exposing anti peace elements in the region.
16 killed in attacks in eastern Ethiopia, say officials
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: (AP) At least 16 people were killed and dozens were injured on Monday in two attacks in eastern Ethiopia, a government official said. A rebel spokesman denied involvement.
The attacks happened early Monday in two towns in eastern Ethiopia, Jijiga and Degah Abur, said Nur Abdi Mohamed, an official of the Somali Regional State.
In Jijiga, an assailant threw a hand grenade during a national day ceremony, killing six people and wounding 51, Nur said.
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Among the injured was the president of the Somali Regional State, Abdullahi Hassan. Abdullahi was treated for a minor leg injury at a hospital and later discharged, Nur said.
He said that attack was carried out by a rebel fighter from the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a group that is fighting for regional independence.
Nur said three other unexploded devices were found in Jijiga but had no other details.
In the other attack, in Degah Abur, 10 people were killed and 16 others wounded, Nur said. He said he had no additional information about that attack.
Authorities were searching for the rebel responsible for the Jijiga attack, said Bereket Simon, an adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front denied it was responsible for any attacks Monday, claiming that Ethiopian security forces carried out the attacks to lay the blame on the rebels.
"It is their tradition to blame us for anything bad that happens in our region," said Abdirahman Mahdi, the group's spokesman, speaking from London. "When we want to attack them (the Ethiopian government) we will do so in daylight. We attack their troops and don't hide our action. We don't have any hand in today's attack. We are fighting the Ethiopian enemy. We are not fighting our people."
Abdirahman said he heard that between 15 and 30 people died in the Jijiga attack and that there were other attacks in eastern Ethiopia towns, but that information could not be verified.
In recent years, the Ogaden National Liberation Front has made occasional hit-and-run attacks against government troops, but seems to have changed tactics recently.
In April it raided an oil exploration field, killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese. The group has fought for the secession of the Ogaden region — an area the size of Britain and home to 4 million people — since the early 1990s.
Ethiopia honors victims of Marxist junta during ceremony in Meskel Square
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP): Three decades ago, Ethiopian police brought Ahmed Hussein's younger brother home from jail and asked the family to gather outside.
"They shot him in front of us," Ahmed said Sunday, his eyes welling with tears. "We were not allowed to cry."
Ahmed and thousands of others gathered in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday to remember victims of the Dergue, a brutal Marxist junta that ruled from 1974 to 1991. The service marked the anniversary of the downfall of the junta's leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam — known as "the butcher of Addis Ababa" — who is living in exile in Zimbabwe.
MENGISTU HAILE MARIAM
1937: Born in Walayitta
1974: Emperor Haile Selassie overthrown
1977-78: Thousands killed during Red Terror
1994: Genocide trial in Ethiopia begins
2006: Found guilty of genocide
Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu's Marxist regime, though no one knows for sure.
On Sunday, guards laid out 27 flower-covered coffins containing remains from mass graves across the country. The crowd wept as the coffins were brought out; elderly women clutched black-and-white photographs of loved ones and wailed.
Even those who were young during the Dergue regime carried dark memories of the Red Terror, the 1977-78 siege when the government killed and imprisoned thousands of people.
"I used to see dead bodies on the street when I went to school," said Michael Melake, 35, an environmental activist. "It was like a kind of Holocaust for Ethiopia," he said.
The government is planning to erect a monument, library and museum in the capital to commemorate the victims.
Muluadem Assefa, 39, clutched a photo of her father, Assefa Casa, whom she believes was killed in jail in the 1970s. She never saw her father again after he was taken to jail.
Ethiopia, which has a long history of human rights abuses, will not see another Red Terror, said Deputy Prime Minister Addisu Legese, who attended Sunday's ceremony.
"This will never, never happen again," he said. "We have fought for that."
Mengistu Haile Mariam found guilty of 'Genocide'
A new film Depicts about 1989 coup attempt in Ethiopia
Verdict due for Ethiopia's ex-dictator Mengistu (May 21 2006)
Left-wing Monster: Mengistu Hailemariam
Meles vs. Mengistu: The Pot Calling the Kettle Black By Fisseha Tecle
The lesser of two evils By Abebe Gelaw
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