Habtamu Ayalew, a former public relations head at the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party, alleges torture and mistreatment at the Federal Police’s Central Bureau of Investigation in Addis Ababa.
Arrested on July 8th, 2014, after a prolonged pre-trial detention at the investigation center commonly known as Maekelawi, he was charged under the anti-terrorism proclamation for allegedly collaborating with an outlawed armed group called Ginbot 7.
Even though he was acquitted by the High Court in September 2015, he was not released until February of the following year when he developed stage-3 hemorrhoids which he attributes to ill-treatment through denial of access to toilet facilities and medical treatment.
His attempt to go abroad for medical treatment was blocked when public prosecutors filed an appeal against him.
Meanwhile, the deterioration of his health continued until he was hospitalized in June 2016 after losing consciousness. This ignited an international appeal for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desaalegn to allow Habtamu to travel abroad on humanitarian grounds.
“The authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the detention conditions that caused Habtamu’s health to deteriorate so much,” said Haben Fekadu, Amnesty International’s campaigner for the Horn of Africa, writing last June. “They must also prosecute anyone reasonably suspected of personal responsibility for this and related offenses, including torture or other acts of ill-treatment, in fair trials.”
However, it was only early this year that Habtamu managed to go to the U.S., where his allegations of abuse came out. “The ill-treatments I was subjected to still pain me physically and psychologically,” he told the Amharic service of US broadcaster the Voice of America.
Habtamu says that during most of the four months of his stay at the investigation center, he was kept with four others or more in a narrow cell. Inmates were allowed to use toilet facilities twice a day only for a few minutes each. He says they were forced to use plastic bottles for urination.
Additionally, solitary confinement without access to family or lawyers was common, he added. Interrogators beat prisoners to get confessions, and subjected some of them to painful stress position like being hung by the wrists or being forced to carry a load on the genitals, he said.
Abel Wabela, a blogger with the Zone9 collective recalls meeting Habtamu briefly when he was detained at Maekelawi. Having received a beating during investigation, which eventually gave him a health problem on one of his ears, he wanted to pass a piece of advice for the then newly imprisoned politician. “I warned him not to engage in argument with the interrogators because they didn’t know what they are doing,” Abel says. “He told me that my advice was very helpful.”
Abel welcomes Habtamu’s speaking out as he believes it is very important to put “organized pressure” on the government to end harsh police interrogation and detention practices.
Many people with experiences of ill-treatment don’t often open up because of the trauma, he says, recalling a former inmate who “had difficulty urinating” because interrogators “swung plastic water bottles on his genitals.”
“He could only disclose what happened to him after we became close,” he adds.
But Abel also urges former inmates to recount their experiences carefully and truthfully. He questions Habtamu’s claim that the cell he was in was always kept cold by filling it with water, saying this is not how he remembers it. “But at the end of the day I do believe the victims of torture are the best evidence” of what’s going on in Maekelawi, he says.
“Most of the torture happens after midnight,” and “the interrogators are often drunk,” he says.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch compiled a report after talking to 35 former inmates detailing that police investigators at Maekelawi use coercive methods on detainees amounting to torture or other ill-treatment to extract confessions, statements, and other information from detainees.
“Detainees are often denied access to lawyers and family members. Depending on their compliance with the demands of investigators, detainees are punished or rewarded with denial or access to water, food, light, and other basic needs,” says the report.
A US State Department’s annual Human Right Report on Ethiopia released in April 2016 also states 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, the report adds.
Located at the heart of Addis Ababa, Ma’ekelawi was a much-feared detention centre during the Marxist Derg regime which ended in 1991. Thousands of dissenters were exposed to cruelties including disturbing torture and arbitrary killings before coming to power of the current ruling party the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.