Journalists in Exile describe Terror in Prison and Death Threats from Government Security Agents – By Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post Foreign Service

August 21st, 2007 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI — Three Ethiopian journalists who had been held for almost two years in an Addis Ababa prison said that days after being cleared of all charges and released this spring, they each received death threats from government security agents. (more…)

NAIROBI — Three Ethiopian journalists who had been held for almost two years in an Addis Ababa prison said that days after being cleared of all charges and released this spring, they each received death threats from government security agents.

In lengthy interviews here in the Kenyan capital, the journalists also described being subjected to psychological torture during their confinement with other political prisoners in a stifling cell on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital. They said that after their release they had had high hopes of starting a new life, but government agents almost immediately began hounding them, harassing them with phone calls and otherwise terrorizing them into fleeing their country for Kenya.

“They told me, ‘We will kill you if you do not disappear,’ ” said one of the newspaper journalists, all of whom spoke anonymously on the advice of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “I was sure I would be killed if I stayed.”

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government declined to comment on the allegations.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has often dealt brutally with people deemed threatening to his fragile ruling coalition. In the capital, people suspected of supporting opposition groups routinely disappear from their neighborhoods, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a pro-democracy group based in Addis Ababa.

Elsewhere, the government is conducting brutal campaigns against separatist rebels and opposition movements in the Ogaden and Oromia regions, where the council and reporters have documented widespread extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions and torture.

The journalists were among thousands of people, including the country’s top opposition leaders, who were arrested in the capital during protests following Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, in which the opposition made significant gains.

Some Ethiopians had held out hope that the release in April of the journalists and others — and especially the subsequent pardon and release of the country’s top opposition leaders last month — marked a turning point for the Ethiopian government.

The U.S. State Department, which considers Ethiopia a key ally in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa, had praised the prisoners’ release as a “breakthrough.”

“We commend the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for its statesmanship in resolving this issue,” the department said in a statement. “The United States calls on all parties to use this breakthrough as the basis to advance dialogue on peace and democratic progress.”

The journalists said their release had seemed miraculous, coming after nearly two years of confinement in the dingy Kaliti prison, where conditions are supposed to be superior to other jails around Ethiopia.

They said they were held in a room riddled with bullet holes and crowded with about 400 other inmates, many suffering from tuberculosis and other illnesses. The room had one toilet.

The journalists estimated that perhaps 85 percent of the inmates were political prisoners from Oromia.

“There was a 90-year-old man and an 86-year-old man,” said one journalist. “One had been there for 12 years, the other for eight years, and they were still waiting for a trial. The 86-year-old had scars all over his body from being beaten. If you heard their story, you would not think you are living in the 21st century.”

One of the journalists said he was beaten on the head and face with an iron rod when he was first arrested in 2005. Otherwise, the journalists said, they were not tortured, a fact they attribute to the international attention to their case.

But other inmates were routinely tortured, they said. “They would pour water on their back and beat them in front of us,” said one of the journalists. “Every morning, we would hear people screaming and begging for their own death. When we saw them tortured, we were tortured.”

When the journalists were found not guilty and released, they said, they looked forward to resuming some kind of normal life, though the government had shut down their newspapers.

But within two weeks, they were being hounded by government agents, in some cases by men they recognized as those who arrested them in 2005.

One of the journalists said he was constantly followed around the city — to Internet cafes, to his home and once to a bar, where a security agent confronted him.

“He said, ‘If you make a mistake again, we will not put you in prison. We will kill you,’ ” he said, adding that the man put his fingers into the shape of a gun and imitated a shot to the head.

Last month, the men decided independently of one another to leave Ethiopia, having heard that the prosecutor had appealed their acquittal.

They recounted putting on disguises — long robes, big hats — and smuggling themselves by truck and taxi, first to the Kenyan border and finally to Nairobi, where they are under U.N. protection.

They live now in hiding, having heard an unconfirmed report that Ethiopian security forces have come to Nairobi.

“My mind cannot rest,” said one of three men. “I do not feel safe. I always think of my family, that they may inflict some harm on them to harm me.”

The treatment of the released prisoners highlights a challenge for the State Department: reconciling its counterterrorism objectives with its stated goals of promoting democracy and human rights abroad.

The United States backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia last year to oust an Islamic movement that had taken hold there, and it cooperated closely with Ethiopia in conducting three airstrikes against Islamic fighters.

A bill critical of Ethiopia’s human rights record is currently stalled in Congress because House leaders have said they feel the Ethiopian government should be given time to arrange for the release of other political prisoners still in jail, a strategy that the journalists consider doomed.

“You hear all this condemnation of Mugabe,” said one, referring to Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. “Meles is much worse. He is killing freely. America should change this partnership with Ethiopia on terrorism. It is allowing the Ethiopian government to kill democracy.”

  1. haile
    | #1

    this is typical asylum fabrication stories. there is no government harrassment like this.

    God bless Ethiopia

  2. bini
    | #2

    This is the crule in human nature of woyane govt.there is a lot people who are stil not getting thier right to be free in Ethiopia .may be mr haile u are woyane’s supporter, we are not surprise by ur coment that you saing earlier. it is better for you not to talk such idiotic idea, at the end of the day you and woyane people not dessapearing from jujment day ,the people of Ethiopia will give you the right punishment for what you talking today and your alike group. death for woyane and fellow denkoro. agazi.

  3. gidaye
    | #3

    it is wierd to hear such support from that idiot haile,sham on him.everyone knows from the world what woyane doing on Ethiopian people in Ethiopia.and also this is one from millions of abused Ethiopia by woyane agazi group.the journalist history is true.woyane cant hide from the world people.its not far for woyane to be jail for ever like those war criminals and human genosiders.May God bless Ethiopia.

    death for woyane.

  4. Sam
    | #4

    Woyanes are animals with no humanity on them. It is shame the US finace such regimes in Africa.

  5. Sam
    | #5

    Woyanes are animals with no humanity on them. It is shame the US finace such regimes in Africa. and the mother of all hypocracy is that they call mugabe repressive and Meles ally…that is just an insult to the Ethiopian people.

  6. Mengesha
    | #6

    Now days the world has realized that the Woyane regime is a terrorist that kills and terrorizes Ethiopian people.

    The threats against the journalists who had suffered in TPLF dungeon and released, manifests a threat against Ethiopian population. It’s idiots ethnic politics and wild army still intends to kill more unless everyone survive being submissive. But Woyane and his bellies should cognize that they are on the last death chapter.

    Does any Ethiopian nationality think or believe that Melese Zenawi and his henchmen are leading or named as leaders or government of the nation? No. No. They are elements of Ethiopian enemies or masked agents being backed up with huge arms and abundant financial resource to convert Ethiopia into… Or eliminate from the world map, and there by themselves.

    It is a paradox and baffling to talk about a state or government in Ethiopian context. Woyane barked that it is the Northern freedom fighter and the world believed that the guerrilla fighter is Ethiopian by nationality and took over the power in 1991. Sooner, Meles duplicated the draft constitution that he imported from known ancient Ethiopian enemies and declared self determination up to cessions. Then followed implementation of main projects;

    Meles acknowledged his signature in front of the U.N. and made Ethiopia a land locked nation.
    Woyane resumed ethnic cleansing and frequent chaos in highly populated regions, provinces and resulted in bloodsheds. Identification card for residents or citizens in Ethiopia incorporates or asks “Which tribe?” Like saying are you Hutu or Tutsi? Imagine Ethiopian nationalities are more than seventy eight and see the possible human tragedy that could happen as per the dirty terrorist and terrorist agent proposals.

    Of course the “Badime Show” had taken the lives of 100,000 Ethiopian just for the sake of eliminating human defense, and both terrorist regimes got good credit and reward. But did you know how the battle was conducted and commanded by Woyane? It was devilish and that would be cursed and cursed for centuries to come.

    Persons were assassinated, tortured in detention cell, murdered unofficially, remained secret, and human massacre in Gambella, Arbagugu, Harrarge and recently in Addis Ababa were the evil Woyane projects as part of destroying Ethiopia.

    If the Woyane and associates get ears or eyes, let them read or learn the message:

    Woyane directors, governors, leaders, bellies, henchmen, and armed assassins, you better check your physical composition from hair-to–feet, internally and externally. If possible, start to use your head and then think of your families’ careers, relatives and so forth and also predict how they can escape from ethnic trap that you have formulated. If you failed to comprehend this simple analogy, you need to wait and see.

    God is great!

  7. | #7


Comments are closed.