A recent pledge by the Ethiopian government to close the Maekelawi detention centre, infamous for its torture tactics, means little to its former inmates.
Atnafu Brhane gets the shivers when he smells old wood. It reminds him of the odour of Ethiopia's Maekelawi Police Station where he was tortured repeatedly over the course of the three months he was imprisoned there.
“I used to pass through that area, I never imagined the things they did to me would happen to me in that place,” says Brhane. He was imprisoned at Maekelawi in April 2014 with five other colleagues from the Zone 9 blogging collective, a platform that offers an alternative take on Ethiopian politics. In the months leading up to Brhane's arrest, the collective started a social media campaign calling on the government to respect the constitution.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition is led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and has been in power since 1991, much to the dismay of the opposition. The government has been accused of reneging on promises to deliver multi-party elections and cracking down on dissidents.
The cost for activists, journalists and opposition politicians has been brutal – it is estimated that hundreds of people have been killed and thousands languish in prisons. The state has imprisoned around 1,000 political prisoners under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Conditions for inmates at Maekelawi – documented by various rights groups – are said to range from ill-treatment to torture. Ethiopia however, denies holding any political prisoners despite former detainees and human rights organisations saying otherwise.
The notorious Maekelawi prison was now closing, the prime minister announced on January 3. The unexpected move to shut down the prison that was initially heralded by the international community came with a caveat. Some of the prisoners would be moved to another detention centre.
Desalegn was initially quoted as saying all political prisoners would be released. However, a day later, on January 4, his office walked his statement back and said only some would be released.
In the weeks since, 528 people have had their charges dropped by the attorney general's office – one of them being prominent Ethiopian opposition leader, Merera Gudina. More prisoners are expected to have their charges dropped in the ensuing weeks.
“The ‘how’ is very important because in the past Ethiopia has released political prisoners at politically opportune moments but they have asked them to sign a pledge of some sort to sign a paper that asked the prisoners to own their mistakes or crimes or express regret,” Mohammed Ademo, the editor of Opride, an online publication that documents Ethiopian news, told TRT World.
The ‘Siberia’ of Ethiopia
Maekelawi, nestled in the heart of the capital Addis Ababa, was where the country’s political prisoners were first taken to. The guards subjected the inmates to sexual abuse, torture and degrading living conditions in an attempt to extract information or even a false confession, Human Rights Watch reported in 2013. Access to food, water and light was also used to coerce or reward.
"Conditions are particularly harsh in the detention blocks known by detainees as Chalama Bet (dark house in Amharic) and Tawla Bet (wooden house). In Chalama Bet detainees have limited access to daylight, to a toilet, and are on occasion in solitary confinement. In Tawla Bet access to the courtyard is restricted and the cells were infested with fleas," the Human Rights Watch report said.
“Maekelawi has a room that is called Siberia because it is very cold. They put me in that cell for three months. They interrogated me for eight hours a day,” Brhane told TRT World.
Brhane was arrested on an otherwise sunny Friday under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for allegedly receiving training to carry out terrorist attacks.
"They put us in a police station then took me to my house, searched everything in my house. They searched through all my notebooks, magazine and books. They found a booklet called digital security."
That was all the ammunition they needed. From then on, Brhane was denied access to a lawyer for a month and subjected to abuse – a move he says is a "grave violation of the constitution."
“Some of my friends ... there were two female colleagues. What did [the Maekelawi guards] did to them is really disgusting. They did that to them because of their gender, they used to interrogate them while they are naked.”
What Brhane witnessed was torture; the men were not spared either. He reports guards placing bottles filled with water on prisoners' genitals, causing immense pain while urinating. In other instances, the damage from the torture was permanent. One of Brhane’s Zone 9 colleagues, Abel Wabella, lost hearing in his right ear as a result of torture.
"A growing legitimacy crisis'
Many of those in detention are there because of their support for Oromo and Amhara ethnicities, imprisoned for opposing government measures that marginalise these communities.
Although the EPRDF is a coalition, it is dominated by the TPLF, a party hailing from the Tigray region. The Tigrayan population make up 6.2 percent of Ethiopia’s ethnicities and yet, the coalition has pushed aside the interests of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups.
“Many in the rapidly growing population feel that they are excluded from the opportunities and resources the EPRDF continues to control,” states a 2009 report by the International Crisis Group.
The resulting inequality has been pervasive, impinging on the lives of Ethiopians from the Oromo and Amhara communities and so, adding to widening inequality between them and Tigrayans.
Ethiopia has been racked by protests since 2015. They were triggered by opposition to the Master Plan – a development project that would have expanded the capital by encroaching on the neighbouring Oromia region, triggering concerns that farmers would be forced out.
The Master Plan was eventually scrapped in 2016 but the protests did not – eventually leading to a ten-month long state of emergency.
For the EPRDF, further compounding these problems is a conflict over rights violations and land between the Oroma and ethnic Somalis, which has left tens of thousands of people displaced and many dead.
“The government faces a growing legitimacy crisis. Three years of protests have left the government crippled,” says Ademo.
This legitimacy crisis also has something to do with the manner in which EPRDF introduced a spate of regressive laws looking to clamp down on dissent: Charities and Societies Proclamation Law, the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation of 2008, in addition to the aforementioned anti-terrorism act. These laws contravene Ethiopia’s constitution, target opposition figures and journalists and restrict human rights activity.
Not enough done
Human rights organisations have been cautious in praising the Ethiopian government’s decision to shut down Maekelawi.
"The closure must not be used to whitewash the horrifying events that have taken place there," Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle said in a statement.
"For years, Maekelawi has essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent including peaceful protesters, journalists and opposition figures."
The Ethiopian government has not yet responded to TRT World’s requests for an interview.
So with a nation that has enacted legislation to back up the repression and imprisonment of dissidents, will the closure of a prison really make any difference when a new one is on the books?
“The release of political prisoners alone does not signify reform. It’s the system that has to be reformed,” said Ademo.
Maekelawi has been just one instrument of oppression throughout eras of monarchy, Derg – the communist rule which overthrew the king – and the current ethnic federalist state.
Ethiopia still plays host to other prisons that reportedly use torture, including Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa. The EPRDF says the prison replacing Maekelawi will be in line with international standards but it’s unclear what these standards include and exclude.
Maekelawi is shutting down but what transpired there will possibly be forever imprinted on the lives of its former inmates.
The trauma of Maekelawi continues to consume Brhane. He is terrified of writing in notepads – it’s the fear of jotting down something innocuous which might be misconstrued by the wrong people prompting another gruelling trial and more prison time. It also means that he is terrified whenever his eyes spot a police squad car or baton.
Could shutting down Maekelawi bring some closure to former inmates? Possibly, but not entirely.
“The feeling is still disturbing, but it is good to close the place down.” he said.
For Brhane, it doesn’t matter. The shivers still linger.