Ethiopia: Behind the Arrests of Thousands & Miscarriage of Justice Is the Silent Sufferings of Prisoners' Families

Addis Abeba — The June 29 assassination of popular Oromo artist and activist Haacaaluu Hundessaa marked the return of headlines that made Ethiopia a notoriously recognizable country before two years ago: mass imprisonment and trial of prominent opposition figures, journalists, academicians, activists and ordinary citizens.

Less talked about is the fact that some of these high profile individuals are among the political prisoners who were freed in February 2018, shortly before the abrupt resignation of Ethiopia's former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalagn. Others are among the thousands of people who were arrested in Oromia regional state in connection with the unrest that took place in Addis Abeba and parts of Oromia regional state, and in Oromia Regional State Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne in the aftermath of the assassination of artist Haacaaluu.

According to a joint presser given between the federal government and Oromia region attorneys general offices, 488 charges were currently opened in which 5, 728 individuals are facing indictments ranging from terrorism to criminal to illegal possession of firearms. Some of these are cases involving high profile individuals such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba et.al, of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Eskinder Nega et.al of Balderas for Genuine Democracy, Lidetu Ayalew of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), and a group of executive members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLf). As such, most are receiving both local and international media coverage; but an overwhelming majority of the indictments are happening outside of the media's limelight.

What is not talked about at all is the sufferings of families who are enduring the social, psychological and financial crisis of having their loved ones, often the family breadwinners, locked away.

Addis Standard spoke to the families of some of these prisoners to highlight suffer the uncertainties and inconsistencies that currently pervade legal proceedings.

Sisay Bekele's Family

Sisay Bekele is one of the people who were arrested in the premises of Oromia Cultural Center in Addis Abeba alongside Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba who are facing a series of charges including terrorism. On September 17, 2020, the court dropped charges and granted bail to Sisay Bekele and 18 other detainees due to lack of sufficient evidence supporting the charges filed against them by the federal prosecutor, lawyer Kedir Bulo told Addis Standard. However, Sisay Bekele was rearrested on the day of his release, on September 18, 2020. According to a legal advisor whose services were acquired by Sisay and who spoke to Addis Standard on conditions of anonymity, Sisay was taken by Oromia police. Sisay's father corroborates the story: "They took him away in a car while his friends and family were watching." Kedir Bulo also said that Sisay's family and friends who were there to take him home were fended off by heavily armed police.

Sisay Bekele is a father of a one-year-old baby boy whose wife was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. His legal advisor said that Sisay had long been pleading with the court to be allowed to see his sick wife, Tejitu Urga. He asked to at least be accompanied by the police to withdraw the money needed to look after his wife. The court kept postponing issuing orders on the pleas, according to his legal team. Unfortunately, she passed away on September 27, 2020.

Sisay's close friend who took on the responsibility of looking after Tejitu said that she was referred to Black Lion Hospital and was taken home after they were told that there is not much done that could be done for her. Upon learning that Tejitu's days are numbered, Sisay's family and defense team appealed to the court for him to at least be allowed to see his dying wife one last time. As stated by Kedir Bulo, in the session held on September 24, 2020, the defense team explained to the federal first instance court that Sisay Bekele and co. were unlawfully detained and demanded their release. The court ordered both Federal police and Oromia police to bring Sisay Bekele and other detainees to court the following session which was on September 28, 2020. On this day, his family asked the court to allow Sisay to attend the funeral but he did not appear at the court hearing and his family did not know his whereabouts.

Sisay's friend also said that a few weeks after his arrest, their house was searched by the federal police and both of their (Sisay and Tejitu) bank books were confiscated. In a short, yet painful video, Sisay's father talked about hardship the family were subjected to including their inability to cover Tejitu's medical bills due lack of access to the family's bank account. His lawyer Kedir Bulo told Addis Standard, "His fellow inmates gathered an amount of money sufficient to cover Tejitu's medical bills but the police refused to give the money to Sisay's family. The inmates carried out a three day long hunger strike in solidarity with Sisay."

Sisay's legal advisor said,"Sisay could have at least spent time with her in the last days of her life had the police followed court orders and released him." The funeral of Tejitu Urga was held in her hometown but according to a close friend of Sisay, he had no knowledge of his wife's passing. A large number of people from the community of Dendi Wereda, West Shewa zone of Oromia Regional State gathered to hold a traditional honorary funeral service for her. Sisay Bekele was released from jail on September 01.

Keleb Seyoum's Family

Keleb Seyoum (Aster) is among the Balderas for Genuine Democracy party members who were arrested following the violence that broke out in Addis Abeba after Haacaaluu's assassination. Keleb was sentenced to 4 years during the previous regime according to her husband Belete who told Addis Standard that she completed her 4 year sentence just a week before the government pardoned political prisoners in 2018. "We had huge expectations when the government admitted that the regime was indeed a terrorist, not the ones it sent to prison." Belete said. He said that they were happy just like everyone else when the Prime Minister personally apologized to the people on the government's behalf.

Belete explained that he and his wife expected much better for the country. "Unfortunately, the justice system has gotten worse," he said. He recalled that their son was only 6 months old when she was sent to jail the first time around. He spoke of the social crisis the family encountered when their son did not recognize Aster when she was released two years ago. "We haven't healed from the scars left from her previous imprisonment and we expected that it would all be healed by the reform we were promised." he said. Aster has left behind her second child at home yet again. Her children get to see her and the youngest get breastfeed once or twice a week on court orders. Belete explained that what his family is experiencing is worse than before because they all feel let down. "We have gotten overwhelming support from our community." Belete said. Adding, "All that's left to do is to have patience with the help of God." Keleb remains under police custody.

Bekele Gerba's Family

"It was a good feeling. We all hoped it was his last time behind bars", said Samuel Bekele, who is the son of the prominent Oromo political figure and vice chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) Bekele Gerba. Samuel was arrested alongside his father, sister and his cousin on June 30, the day after Haacaaluu's death. "We started giving up hope 6 months after Abiy Ahmed assumed power," said Samuel, who grew up in the absence of his father, an academician who spent his political life in prison after he first joined a political party in 2009. Samuel explained that their family gave up especially after the way the government handled the security crisis in Wollega, West Oromia, and Guji, south Oromia. "Starting from then we knew jail time was coming, we just didn't know when."

Samuel recounted the time he was under police custody by explaining how his mother didn't know his whereabouts for the first eight days after his arrest. He recalled an allergic reaction he suffered that resulted with the swelling of his face. "When they brought me back to the detention center and I stepped out of the ambulance with my hands cuffed, my eyes swollen, my mom assumed they had beaten me and she started to cry. It broke me seeing my mom like that."

The main challenge they are facing is the social stigma they are facing according to Samuel. He spoke about how due to the reason that the state affiliated media has already labeled Bekele Gerba and co as "terrorists"; they fear that, even if Bekele is released, a "misinformed angry mob" might want to take justice into its own hands. "After the Attorney General described my father as ultra-nationalist, violent and militant, we are afraid to attend gatherings, we don't even go to the church we used to attend," he said. He explained how the charges brought against his father and the smear campaign on state affiliated media make them fear the worst could happen. "If God forbid we hear a sad news about Bekele and co, even by accident, we are going to assume that it is a premeditated political assassination." He also spoke of the financial challenges the family faced after the police froze all of their bank accounts.

Lastly he said "We believe we will win this fight. My family has given Bekele to the Oromo people. If something unfortunate happens to Bekele it's a good way to go fighting for the rights and freedom of his people." Bekele is under custody where he is awaiting a court hearing on November 24. He is facing multiple charges including terrorism.

Dejene Tafa's Family

Aselefech Mulatu, the wife of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) senior leadership Dejene Tafa, looked back on the first time he was pardoned from prison two years ago saying "I am aware that freedom is not the pardoning of 3 or 4 renowned political prisoners. There were countless people who were sent to jail in connection with Dejene's party. I was thinking of the people who were left behind. I wasn't happy that my Dejene was released." But she confessed how happy she felt after she saw him at rallies when people celebrated his release. Aselefech spoke about how she takes pride by the fact that her husband is a politician who took the path set by freedom fighters who lived before him. "I am aware of the goal he is trying to achieve and the consequences" she said adding "There is no going back until we bring democracy."

Aselefech spoke about the dire conditions in prison that Dejene is facing in prison. She said he was moved to another detention center without her knowledge and that he is facing threats. She also recalled that he used to receive threats before he was arrested, "I don't know why they do this to him after they took him into custody." she added. She talked about how he was denied bail after they paid 10,000 birr. According to Addis Standard, the police claimed they have finalized their investigation and have handed over the report to the prosecutors where the police filed an appeal against the decision to release them on bail.

She said that her hope in the said reform began fading after she saw how the government handled the security crisis across the country. She also said that they were anticipating his arrest after the election was postponed. "We felt let down when they took him away for the 14th time." Aselefech said adding that she was pregnant at the time and their youngest child was 20 months old. She gave birth two weeks after his arrest. "Although it saddens me that he never got to meet his new born child and our son asks for his dad from time to time, I know that the cause he is fighting for is noble and that keeps me going." she said. Dejene remains in detention where he is facing various charges.

Of late, the discrepancy between court orders and police action has become a trend in Ethiopian legal proceedings. Within the last couple of months there were a number of instances where the police failed to abide by court orders. The most famous of these reports include Yasin Juma, Misha Adem Chiri, Lidetu Ayalew and a team of journalists from Asrat Media where the police refused to release them after they were granted bail. The Federal Attorney General Office admits that these practices are wrong and "need to be corrected"; the practice, however, has only gotten worse. AS

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