ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s attorney general announced the dismissal of five top prison officials for alleged human rights violations, hours before the Thursday release of a Human Rights Watch report on torture in one regional prison.
The announcement came hours before the release of a harrowing report by Human Rights Watch describing systematic torture in Jail Ogaden, a prison in Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia’s Somali region.
The report’s author, Felix Horne, said federal and regional authorities never responded to letters in April and May conveying the group’s findings. The report calls for a probe of the abuses cited in the report as well as criminal charges against those responsible.
None of the officials dismissed were linked to the prison described in the report.
Ethiopia has long been criticized for its human rights violations and egregious prison conditions, but new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — inaugurated in April — has spoken forcefully against the old way of doing things.
In a landmark question-and-answer session before Parliament in June, Abiy condemned the historical use of torture by security services, describing it as a form of “terrorism.”
“Does the constitution demand people be flogged, be injured, be kept in dark rooms? It doesn’t. That is the terrorist act of us, the government,” he said.
Abiy, set to visit the United States this month, has also released thousands of prisoners and reached out to both political opposition and rebel groups.
The Human Rights Watch report concentrates on the Somali region, which has been a focus of criticism by rights groups over its president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Iley, and his regional security force, the Liyu police.
Under Ethiopia’s federal system, the nation’s regions have great autonomy, and a real test of Abiy’s moves will be whether they are extended to the Somali region, where rights groups say authorities are particularly oppressive and there is little federal oversight of the prisons.
“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,” said one prisoner quoted in the Human Rights Watch report. “They had metal sticks to give us for this. I was told if I refused, then I had to kill myself.”
Interviews with 70 former prisoners revealed pervasive torture, rape and horrific detention conditions. Women often became pregnant after being raped by guards and other prison officials and had to give birth in the prison.
“I asked to be taken to the hospital for the birth. They laughed,” said one woman who was quoted in the report. “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.”
Abdi came to power about 10 years ago, when an anti-government insurgency raged. He brutally suppressed it and filled the prison with alleged rebel sympathizers.
In the past week, the rebel group that led the insurgency, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, was removed from the terrorism list by the federal government.
As the rest of the country has witnessed a degree of a democratic opening, the people of the Somali region, which also has been racked by record-breaking droughts, have been increasingly protesting Abdi’s rule.
Elders have also traveled to Addis Ababa to complain to the federal government about Abdi’s excesses.
According to journalist Zecharias Zelalem, who has done some of the rare coverage of the unrest, these rallies have subsided in the face of heavy repression by the regional government.
“From what I’ve heard, things have slowed in recent weeks, particularly after the June 5 arrest of around 40 suspected protest organizers, sympathizers in Jijiga,” he said. “Arrests and threats have taken their toll, I’d say.”
The question now is whether the Somali region will benefit from the democratic opening taking place with great fanfare in the rest of the country under Abiy’s leadership.
A recent analysis in the Africa Report, however, indicated that the Somali region’s president might be difficult to dislodge from his personal fiefdom.
“Abiy’s room for maneuver is limited. Any attempt to tame Abdi’s autonomy will likely be met with stiff resistance. His power to remove elected regional officials is limited,” the analysis noted.