Freed Ethiopians Describe Threats

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

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.

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