A leaked Cable of US Embassy Addis Ababa of April 2007, classified as ‘Secret’, presents a meeting with a respected local NGO leader Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie where the latter disclosed disturbing accounts of torture.
Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie, head of the local NGO Prison Fellowship Justice for All. He sits on the government’s Board of Pardon and had a leading role in a local elders group that facilitated the pardoning of opposition leaders arrested for their role in the violence following election 2005.
On the first half of the year 2007, Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie was granted access to visit a group of prisoners ‘[after] persistent requests’.
The detainees, 25 representatives of ETA(a Teachers’ association) and 20 other factory workers were being held ‘on suspicion of involvement with the Ethiopian People Patriotic Front(EPPF), a rebel opposition group with alleged ties to Eritrea’, according to the Cable.
Pastor Daniel and the Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC), Ambassador Kassa Gebrehiwot, lobbied unnamed ruling party heavy weights for several weeks to have the detainees released. Their efforts bore fruit, though four of them got detained again later on new charges. Pastor Dan was working on their re-release by the time of the writing of the Cable.
It was in the course of this process that Pastor Daniel found out serious allegations of torture.
The Cable summarizes it as follows:
Through meetings with these prisoners while detained and following their release, Pastor Dan learned that they were subjected to severe torture while in prison. Pastor Dan told Embassy officers that prison officials used Derg-era techniques ) e.g. hanging prisoners from the ceiling in arm shackles, beating the soles of their feet and hanging boards from their testicles ) to try to extract confessions. One of the prisoners reportedly died from injuries sustained while in prison, though prison officials maintain that he is “sick in the hospital.”Another of the former prisoners reported that when he was arrested, police dragged him out of his place of work and was pistol-whipped by plain clothes security forces on the way to the detention facility.
Pastor Daniel brought the matter to the attention of government officials.
The Cable briefly presents Pastor Daniel’s findings as follows:
In follow-up meetings with prison officials, Pastor Dan was told that such reports are incorrect and that the prisoners were never tortured.
However, in a meeting with the Federal Police Commissioner, he was told that some low-level interrogation officers lack the proper training and can sometimes use unsanctioned methods.
Pastor Dan told the group of Embassy officers that “officials at the PM cabinet level” do not condone torture either, and that in the past seven years [year 2000-2006] nearly 200 prison employees had been fired for improper behavior.
Though the detainees have political motivations to accuse the government, I think Pastor Daniel is aware of such possibilities and would effort to ascertain whether there is an element of truth in the allegations.
Given his reputation, I argue, his suspicions and allegations suffice to launch a serious investigation on the matter.
Of course, Pastor Daniel reported that “officials at the PM cabinet level” do not condone torture and hundreds of prison officers had been fired, apparently, for related misconducts.
But that doesn’t vindicate higher officials, in my opinion.
One of the main problems, I argue, is the tendency of government officials to downplay violations of human rights and compromise on the standards. As hinted in the response from the Federal Police Commissioner to Pastor Daniel, that ‘some officers’ might ‘sometimes use unsanctioned methods’.
This echoes a remark by the chief Commissioner of EHRC(Ethiopian Human Rights Commission) which I quoted and rebuked last December, in an article, titled 18 criticisms Ethiopia should respond to.
I wrote, beginning with a quote from EHRC’s chief Commissioner:
“There is no torture. We conducted several visitations and interviewed prisoners and officers. Though there could be things that happen sometimes at emotional moments in the course of investigation, there is no torture by the police.”
This was a response of the Head of the Ethiopian Human Right Commission, on June 2008 in parliament, while responding to a question whether the police uses torture.
I understand that he meant there is no widespread, systemic or organized use of torture by the police, because I recollect him describing the remedial measures EHRC took in response to complaints. He could also be referring to the absence of ‘torture rooms’ that were common during the Military regime.
My trouble is with the attitude implied in his remark: there could be things that happen at emotional moments in the course of investigation troubling. What are the ‘things’ he implicitly considered as mere trifles or excusable on the pretext of ‘emotionality’? Insult, a slap, or a blow? This is not the attitude I like to see in the very person whose sole obsession should have been defending my rights.
Unfortunately, this is the prevailing attitude among high ranking officials including judges.
The bottom line:
Whether the reality is the use of ‘some unsanctioned methods’ or a Derg-style torture, the ruling party should feel ashamed of being suspected of such deeds for the abolition of which thousands sacrificed.
It is imperative that the governmental reaffirms its commitment to the Constitutional standards by proactively addressing this saddening matter.
A symbolic way to start that would be to close the infamous police investigation office, aka Maekelawi, that it inherited from the previous regime.
A more substantive course of action would be to act upon at least 18 of the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture.
Read the full text of the Cable below.
Reference ID – 07ADDISABABA1277
Created – 2007-04-24 14:18
Released – 2011-08-30 01:44
Classification – SECRET
Origin – Embassy Addis Ababa
SUBJECT: ETHIOPIA: RELIABLE REPORTS OF TORTURE OF SOME POLITICAL PRISONERS
REF: ADDIS ABABA 02629
Classified By: P/E Counselor Kevin Sullivan for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).
¶1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: In a recent meeting, respected local NGO leader Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie (strictly protect) confirmed reports by Amnesty International of arrests and police beatings of a group of teachers. However, he told Poloff and officials from European Embassies that the numbers were much larger than originally thought, and that the prisoners, who are all also supporters of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy party, had been tortured by police using methods commonly utilized by security forces under the Derg regime. Though most of the prisoners were eventually released thanks to efforts by Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie, he fears their arrest is part of a larger GoE program to identify and suppress (illegal) opposition groups in the Oromiya and Amhara regions since the start of operations in Somalia. Pastor Dan suggested that such orders are not coming from senior leaders, but rather that these practices exist among lower-level security officials. Post is still trying to assess how widespread torture has been and to what extent senior officials were aware of it. In any case, Post intends to elevate human rights issues as a point of concern in all official Embassy meetings. END SUMMARY.
AMNESTY REPORT TOUCHES TIP OF ICEBERG
¶2. (S/NF) On January 4, 2007, Amnesty International issued a report that three representatives of the largest Ethiopian trade union, the Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA), had been detained by police in December and had been subjected to torture in prison. The three were allegedly being held at Maikelawi, the central investigation bureau in Addis Ababa. Though the prisoners had appeared in court, no visitor had been allowed to visit them. (NOTE: The ICRC does not have access to federal detention facilities. END NOTE) The ETA is generally viewed by the GoE as having close ties with opposition political parties and has been subjected to harassment and arrests of its members since the EPRDF came to power in 1991 (reftel).
¶3. (S/NF) Pastor Daniel Gebraselassie (Pastor Dan) (strictly protect), head of the local NGO Prison Fellowship ) Justice for All, and a close Post contact, was recently granted access to visit the ETA prisoners following persistent requests. Pastor Dan subsequently invited Poloff and colleagues from the German, British and Dutch Embassies who represent a multi-Embassy human rights working group, to hear the findings of his visits. Pastor Dan, who maintains very friendly relations with the GoE, nonetheless said that 45 detainees in total were being held, not three as reported, and that 25 of them were representatives from the ETA. Others, he said, were simply factory workers or government employees. All of the 45 were being held on suspicion of involvement with the Ethiopian Patriotic Front, a rebel opposition group with alleged ties to Eritrea. However, the real common thread among all the detainees, according to Pastor Dan, was that they are Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) supporters, and come from Addis Ababa or the Amhara region – strongholds of CUD support. Pastor Dan told the group that some of the prisoners had been observers in the 2005 elections; others were CUD members and organizers, some of whom received support from CUD North America.
¶4. (S/NF) Over the course of several weeks, Pastor Dan (strictly protect), in collaboration with the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ambassador Kassa Gebrahiwot, met with GoE representatives (“actors behind the scenes”) to secure the release of these prisoners. Indeed, following their efforts, the first instance court ruled that there was insufficient evidence and ordered the prison to release them. Though the prison officials initially did not heed the courts ruling, continued pressure from Pastor Dan and Ambassador Kassa led to all being released. Four, however, have been detained once again on new charges that they are members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and currently remain in jail. Pastor Dan is working on their re-release.
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PRISONERS REPORT SEVERE TORTURE
¶5. (S/NF) Through meetings with these prisoners while detained and following their release, Pastor Dan learned that they were subjected to severe torture while in prison. (NOTE: Prisoners refuse to meet with Ambassador Kassa, saying that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is not independent of the GoE. END NOTE) Pastor Dan told Embassy officers that prison officials used Derg-era techniques ) e.g. hanging prisoners from the ceiling in arm shackles, beating the soles of their feet and hanging boards from their testicles ) to try to extract confessions. One of the prisoners reportedly died from injuries sustained while in prison, though prison officials maintain that he is “sick in the hospital.” Another of the former prisoners reported that when he was arrested, police dragged him out of his place of work and was pistol-whipped by plain clothes security forces on the way to the detention facility. The released detainees told Pastor Dan that others detained after them on similar suspicions are still held in Maikelawi. In follow-up meetings with prison officials, Pastor Dan was told that such reports are incorrect and that the prisoners were never tortured. However, in a meeting with the Federal Police Commissioner, he was told that some low-level interrogation officers lack the proper training and can sometimes use unsanctioned methods. Pastor Dan told the group of Embassy officers that “officials at the PM cabinet level” do not condone torture either, and that in the past seven years nearly 200 prison employees had been fired for improper behavior.
45 LIKELY PART OF INCREASED OPPOSITION ROUNDUP
¶6. (S/NF) In discussing the possible impetus to arrest these 45 prisoners, and others allegedly still held, Pastor Dan told the group that since around the time of Ethiopian operations in Somalia, the GoE has increased its operations against opposition groups in the Amhara and Oromiya regions. This corroborates the contentions Post has heard from Oromo political party members, many of whom accuse the government of using the OLF as an excuse to harass its members throughout the region. Pastor Dan also theorized that this activity would not end soon, as he said some are interpreting recent rhetoric from the GoE as prepping the public for military activity with Eritrea.
¶7. (S/NF) Clandestine sources have also reported large numbers of arrests in the December 2006 to March 2007 time period of CUD and alleged OLF supporters. Some of those arrested are brought to Maikelawi for interrogation. However, many opposition politicians maintain that many arrested in such suspicions are never brought to federal facilities, and are instead handled at the local level. Clandestine sources also report that many detainees at Maikelawi are held for extended periods for interrogation prior to any court appearances, sometimes for up to a year. In addition, clandestine sources report torture of prisoners at Maikelawi, as well as the recent case of two suspects arrested on suspicion of links to the OLF who were shot dead in their cells after confessions were extracted.
COMMENT: RED FLAG FROM PASTOR DAN
¶8. (S/NF) Pastor Dan sits on the President’s pardon board, and through his work with his NGO Prison Fellowship, is often given access to visit prisons when no other outsiders are allowed. Though some opposition figures believe he is too close to the GoE, Post has found him to be one of the few Ethiopians who can be truly be considered politically neutral. (NOTE: He is also one of the “Elders” that are leading negotiations with the CUD detainees. END NOTE) Post deems him to be a reliable source and his decision to brief a group of Embassy officials on this highly sensitive subject is noteworthy. During the brief, Pastor Dan was visibly upset in describing his discoveries and while he notes the need to act on this information, he recognizes that this is particularly difficult. Post and other Embassies, if addressing the issue, cannot name Pastor Dan as a source for
ADDIS ABAB 00001277 003 OF 003
such information without compromising the level of access he maintains. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission may be the only institution that can hold the government’s feet to the fire for such activity. However, many do not believe the Commission is independent and that it would never implicate the GoE for torture. (NOTE: In a recent meeting with EU Ambassadors, the Commission declared that torture does not occur in Ethiopian prisons. END NOTE)
¶9. (S/NF) The GoE appears to be clamping down on the two groups that conceivably pose the greatest political threat ) the OLF and the CUD. While elements of Eritrean-backed, armed, illegal insurgencies continue to operate in Ethiopia, as well as in Somalia, the legal opposition caught in the crossfire will suffer the most in this fight. Many reportedly moderate opposition members have been harassed or arrested on the accusation of being part of insurgent groups. If the general population is given no choice other than support of the EPRDF or illegal opposition groups, democratic development in Ethiopia will remain stalled.
¶10. (S/NF) Post is still attempting to assess how prevalent the use of torture is in GoE facilities, as well as whether senior GoE leaders are a aware of such practices. Pastor Dan has suggested that high-level instructions for the use of torture were not given. Regardless, human rights issues remain this Embassy’s top concern, and we will now go one step further and raise human rights issues in all meetings by Embassy officers regarding all matters, including assistance. In addition, we will discuss these incidents with EU colleagues in order to coordinate responses.
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