Horror stories of torture hound Ethiopia as it proclaims commitment to reform

Special to The Globe and Mail, with a report from Zoe Alsop

NEKEMTE, ETHIOPIA -- During the six months that 25-year-old Aman was detained in an Addis Ababa prison, he alleges, police kicked and punched him and kept him for weeks on end in a tiny cell with his hands bound as if always in prayer.
Then there was the day that Aman, a second-year law student at the time, went before a judge and found himself correcting her on the Ethiopian criminal code. She had granted prosecutors' request to detain him for three weeks of investigation, a week longer than the law allows.
"I could not have words to express the situation, it is so difficult," said Aman, who was never charged with a crime and eventually released.
"They appoint judges who have no legal knowledge of law, who learn about the law for six months and sit at the court."
This is the state of affairs in today's Ethiopia. Interviews with dozens of people across the country, coupled with testimony given to diplomats and human-rights groups, paint a picture of a nation that, despite government claims to the contrary, jails its citizens without reason or trial, tortures many of them and habitually violates its own laws. The government was also severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown in which tens of thousands of opposition members were jailed and nearly 200 people killed after elections in which the opposition made major gains.
But many Western governments that do business with Ethiopia, including Canada and the United States, maintain that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is committed to democratic and human-rights reforms. The United States has even worked with Ethiopia's jailers; the Bush administration recently acknowledged that CIA and FBI officials interrogated suspected terrorists there who had fled the fighting in Somalia.
Canada says that one of its citizens, Bashir Makhtal, is one of Ethiopia's prisoners. Although reports so far indicate he has not been tortured, Canadian diplomats say they have not been allowed to visit Mr. Makhtal. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also barred from visiting federal prisons.
People interviewed across Ethiopia recounted stories of torture: electric shocks, beatings with rubber clubs, police who held guns to prisoners' heads, mutilation or pain inflicted on the genitals.
One man said police arrested him because he played too much ping pong; they began to suspect that he was recruiting people to a rebel group while he played. Another described 17 days of electric shocks on his legs and back, followed by beatings with rubber truncheons. He never learned his crime, but suspects he was targeted for his refusal to join Mr. Meles's ruling EPRDF party.
"They took us turn by turn to a dark place, and they would shock us and say, 'What do you think now? You won't change your ways now? Do you want to be a member of our party now?' " said the man, Tesfaye. He refused to give his last name for fear of being rearrested.
Ethiopian officials dismiss stories of torture as lies, and have expelled many foreign journalists and representatives of human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The country's Culture and Tourism Minister, Mohamoud Dirir, recently accused the Western media of giving one-sided information "magnifying the negative."
Bereket Simon, a top adviser to Mr. Zenawi, echoed that theme. He said it's in the interests of rights groups to lie about the situation, and he rejected the idea that torture occurs in Ethiopia.
"No way. No way. No way. I think you know, these are prohibited by laws, by Ethiopian laws, ..." Mr. Bereket said. "In fact, we have been improving on our prison standards. We've been working hard to train the police forces, the interrogators."
Yet claims of the abuses are widespread. The U.S. State Department's 2006 human-rights report for Ethiopia cited "numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees." It included more than 30 pages of detailed accounts of violations, ranging from the beating of teenagers to arbitrary arrests to the banning of theatre performances that send the wrong political message.
European diplomats and employees of Western aid groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they keep quiet about abuses because they fear the government will freeze them out of aid work. About 2.8 million of Ethiopia's 75 million people depend on foreign food aid.
U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto said in an interview that he wants to investigate claims of abuse, but warned against making allegations without proof.
"There's a lot of misinformation about Ethiopia. I mean it's amazing," Mr. Yamamoto said. "The problem comes in trying to divide or separate what is fact and what's fiction, and trying to keep an open mind on every issue."

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