Prison officials and security forces have arbitrarily detained and tortured prisoners for years in the notorious regional prison known as Jail Ogaden. Ethiopia’s new prime minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, should urgently order investigations into the horrific situation, and the government should ensure regional security forces and officials are held accountable.
The 88-page report, “‘We are Like the Dead’: Torture and other Human Rights Abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia,” describes a brutal and relentless pattern of abuse, torture, rape, and humiliation, with little access to medical care, family, lawyers, or even at times to food. The prison’s security forces, including the Somali Region’s notorious paramilitary force, the Liyu police, are implicated. The unit reports to the Somali Region president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Illey. Most prisoners are accused of some affiliation with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a banned opposition group, but most never face charges or trials.
“Ethiopia’s new prime minister admitted security forces have tortured Ethiopians, but he has yet to tackle Ethiopia’s culture of impunity and ensure accountability for abuses by the security forces,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific situation in Jail Ogaden requires immediate and transparent investigation into the actions of the regional president, other senior Somali Region officials, and the Liyu police.”
In a remarkable break with the government’s normal posture of denial, Ethiopia’s prime minister acknowledged in a speech before parliament on June 18 that security force personnel engage in torture. He did not speak of abuses in Jail Ogaden in particular or comment on what the government would do to ensure accountability for torture throughout Ethiopia or justice for the victims.
Human Rights Watch interviewed almost 100 people, including security force members, government officials, and 70 former detainees and documented abuses in Jail Ogaden between 2011-early 2018.
“I was kept in solitary confinement in complete darkness for most of my [three year] detention,” one former prisoner said. “I was only taken out at night for torture. They [prison officials] did many things to me – they electrocuted my testicles, they tied wire around them, and they put a plastic bag with chili powder over my head. I often had a gag tied in my mouth so I wouldn’t scream too much.”
Detainees said they were stripped naked and beaten in front of the entire prison population and made to carry out humiliating acts in front of fellow inmates to instil fear.
“They once made me lie naked on the ground in front of everyone and roll around in the mud while they beat me with sticks,” said Hodan, 40, who was imprisoned without charge for five years. “Once they made an old man stand naked with his daughter…you would feel such shame after these treatments in front of all the other prisoners.”
Prisoners said that top jail officials, including senior Liyu police officials, not only ordered torture, rape, and denial of food, but personally took part in the rape and torture. In overcrowded cells at night, head prisoners further violently interrogated detainees, passing notes on to prison leaders, who then selected people for further punishment.
The serious overcrowding, torture, starvation and disease outbreaks. grossly inadequate food, and water and lack of health care and sanitation led to deaths in detention.
Many children are born in Jail Ogaden, including some allegedly conceived through rape by prison guards. Female prisoners described giving birth inside their cells, in many cases without health care or even water.
Almost all of the former prisoners interviewed said that they had not been to court or been charged with any crime. Former judges told Human Rights Watch that Somali Region officials pressured them to sentence detainees they have never met or seen any evidence on to prison terms.
In 2007/8 the Ethiopian army committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during counterinsurgency operations against the ONLF, including extrajudicial executions, torture and rape. The Liyu police, established after that period, have repeatedly committed similar crimes in the Somali Region, continuing the pattern of collective punishment. Liyu police incursions into Oromia Regional State beginning in 2016 have left hundreds dead. About one million people from those areas were displaced.
The federal government should substantially reform the Somali Region’s Liyu police and hold its senior members to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Torture is a serious problem throughout Ethiopia and Human Rights Watch regularly receives reports of abusive interrogations countrywide. Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission has inspected Jail Ogaden on many occasions since 2011, but reports of those visits are not publicly available, and it is not clear what actions, if any, were taken to address abuses.
Many former detainees said that the most visibly injured, children, and pregnant women were held in secret rooms or moved out of the prison ahead of commission visits. Others said they were told what to say to commission officials. Those who spoke to them openly faced brutal reprisals.
Ethiopia’s prime minister should establish a federal commission of experts to investigate abuse at Jail Ogaden that would identify officials, regardless of rank, to be criminally investigated for abuse in the prison. This commission should also develop a process to evaluate the cases of each prisoner currently held at Jail Ogaden, and either release them or charge them with a crime based on credible evidence.
“The scale of torture and abuse in Jail Ogaden cannot be overstated,” Horne said. “Dr. Abiy should continue to publicly condemn torture and take action on Jail Ogaden to show he is serious about stopping torture and ending impunity.”
Selected Accounts (All names are pseudonyms.)
On the nonstop cycle of abuse, from Abdusalem, 28:
I was kept in solitary confinement in complete darkness for most of my [three-year] detention. I was only taken out at night for torture. They [prison officials] did many things to me – they electrocuted my testicles, they tied wire around them, and they put a plastic bag with chili powder over my head. I often had a gag tied in my mouth when they did all this so I wouldn’t scream too much. During the day, I was given very little food – one bread and occasionally a bit of stew. They also raped my wife [who was also in Jail Ogaden]. She gave birth to a child that was not mine there.
On torture involving water techniques, Fatuma, 26:
They would tie my hands together with rope, put us in the pool deeper than my head and keep you in. They would put around 10 people in that pool at a time. …They ask you all the usual questions: ‘Who do you know from ONLF? How did you support them?’ Some people they pull out and there is no response from them. I don’t know if they died.
On nightly self-evaluations, Ali, 32:
When night falls the evaluations start. It is only inmates doing this to each other, in the morning the report is given to the guards. The more you deny, the worse the torture. The better the confession, the less the beatings. The more you admit to during the evaluation, the more people will clap during your self-assessment, and if you don’t admit to things the kabbas [head prisoner] or prisoners will beat you right there.
On stripping and humiliation of detainees, Mohamed, 28:
I witnessed hundreds of men being undressed completely. It was at night and it was raining and muddy. They had called us out of the room, told us to take our clothes off, lie down and roll in the mud. Then some of us were taken back to our rooms naked. Others were told to walk in line holding each other’s genitals. Once you go back into the room you can let go. The guards took pictures of this laughing.”
On the psychological torment of being pressured to abuse other prisoners, Abdirahman, 31:
We were always being told to humiliate each other, but the worst was one day they brought together a number of prisoners, and each was told to beat another person to death. They had metal sticks to give us for this. I was told if I refused then I had to kill myself. When we refused, they just beat us – but it’s that constant psychological punishment that is the worst.
On giving birth in detention, Ayan, 31:
None of the children born while I was there had any [professional] help, only from the women prisoners. I requested [medical care] treatment for my birth because I knew I would give birth soon. Liyu police said, ‘Put it [the baby] in the toilet, they are of no use, they will just grow up to be a sympathizer of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).’ I asked to be taken to hospital for birth. They laughed. I asked for extra water. They refused. So I gave birth in the jail. The women had a sharp piece of metal they used to cut the umbilical cord and they tied it themselves.
On the constant state of fear and the regular deaths in detention, Hodan, 30:
Every night I could hear them hitting people. I heard so much crying. In the morning when people are sitting in front of my house eating breakfast everyone would speak quietly about who had been taken away the night before: ‘Mr so and so was killed by beating last night, so and so was raped last night, or beaten last night.’ Every morning we would go through the list of those who had died or just didn’t return to their cell. We lived in a constant state of fear that we would be next.
On the visits of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, Amina, 34:
“When the human rights commission comes they take out the serious cases, and just leave the new people. I was one of the people they were hiding. They took me to the military camp, Garbassa. First time I was there for seven days. They took out elderly women, and those who had been beaten in the face, or had wounds, or had small children.