The Ethiopian authorities must halt their continuing onslaught on dissent, Amnesty International said today, after the arrest of four more opposition party members this week, who are believed to be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
All four were arrested on 8 July in the capital Addis Ababa and the northern city of Mekele on “terror” accusations: a charge commonly used as a pretext to put dissenters behind bars in Ethiopia.
“These latest detentions add to Ethiopia’s ever-increasing number of journalists, opposition members, activists and other dissenting voices locked up for alleged ‘terrorism’ offences,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia Researcher.
“In the run-up to next year’s general election, the fear is that this number will continue to grow as the government continues its onslaught on dissent. Everyone who has been arrested because of their peaceful expression of dissenting opinions, their blogging activities, membership of a legally-registered political opposition party or participation in peaceful protests must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
Latest arrests and torture concerns
Those arrested on 8 July are: Abraha Desta of the Arena Tigray party, who is also a lecturer at Mekele University; Habtamu Ayalew and Daniel Shebeshi, both members of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party and Yeshewas Asefa of the Blue Party.
Abraha Desta is believed to be detained in Mekele, in the northern region of Tigray, while the other three have been taken to the Maikelawi federal police detention centre in Addis Ababa.
Blue Party and UDJ members say they tried to visit the men in Maikelawi on 9 July but were not permitted access and were told they could not have contact until the police investigation was concluded.
It is commonplace for detainees in Maikelawi to be denied access to legal representatives and family members in the initial stages of detention. This can last for as long as two or three months and is in violation of Ethiopian and international law. This incommunicado detention significantly increases the risk of detainees being subjected to torture. Political detainees in Maikelawi are frequently subjected to torture during interrogation.
Illegal transfer from Yemen
Also on 8 July, state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV) confirmed that an opposition leader who had disappeared on 24 June in Yemen was being detained in Addis Ababa. Andargachew Tsige, Secretary General of the outlawed Ginbot 7 movement, was illegally transferred from Yemen, and his precise whereabouts in the Ethiopian capital have still not been disclosed. A British national of Ethiopian origin, he continues to be denied access to consular or legal representatives or relatives.
In the broadcast, ETV (the country’s only TV channel) showed footage of Andargachew Tsige looking haggard and exhausted saying his arrest was a blessing in disguise and he just wanted to rest. His wife told Amnesty International that she did not understand what the footage or the message was intended to mean.
There are a number of precedents of the authorities taking footage of defendants in terrorism trials and broadcasting it on ETV. In each case, this violated the individuals’ right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Andargachew Tsige has already been tried on three separate occasions in absentia and sentenced to death as well as life imprisonment.
The same broadcast announced that other opposition leaders had been arrested, based on their contact with Ginbot 7 and Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) – a satellite TV channel broadcast in exile and which the Ethiopian authorities called the “official media of Ginbot 7”. Details of the arrests emerged subsequently.
Ethiopia has previously used alleged contact with Ginbot 7 and ESAT as a reason to imprison and thereby silence other dissenting voices on allegations of terrorism. In 2011, the Ethiopian authorities banned Ginbot 7 as a terrorist organization.
Journalists and bloggers held under Anti-Terrorism Law
Six bloggers from the group Zone 9 and three journalists are also among those detained under the Anti-Terrorism Law in Maikelawi. All nine have been detained without charge since their arrest on 25 and 26 April 2014 for alleged terrorism offences. The deeply flawed Anti-Terrorism Law allows for up to four months’ detention without charge – one of the longest remand periods in the world.
On 9 July, six of the detainees were granted access to visitors for the first time since their arrest two and half months ago. They reported they had been moved from the underground cells in Maikelawi where political detainees are regularly held in the early stages of their detention to a different part of the prison which detainees jokingly call “Sheraton”.
All six said that they have been forced to sign confessions of their alleged crimes. Three had previously complained in court remand hearings that they had been tortured. The court took no action on the allegations.
The remaining Zone 9 members, Abel Wabela and Mahlet Fantahun, and journalist Edom Kasaye, continue to be detained incommunicado.
“The Ethiopian government’s record on respecting the rights of detainees is alarming to say the least,” said Claire Beston.
“All detainees must be granted immediate access to lawyers and family members, must be charged with a recognizable offence or immediately released, and the Ethiopian government must ensure that no-one is ever subjected to torture.”