Monthly Archives: October 2013

Torture in the heart of Finfinnee, even as leaders gather in gleaming AU building

(A4O, 26 October 2013) Many journalists and diplomats who attend events in Finfinnee’s  gleaming new African Union building are probably unaware that it rests on the site of one of Ethiopia’s most notorious prisons. While that prison was torn down in 2007, its legacy of torture and abuse continues today at the heart of the capital.

Photo @dragabaa

Photo @dragabaa

Over the past year, I have spoken to dozens of people who were held in a detention centre called Maekelawi in central Addis. They described dire conditions and a range of abusive interrogation methods to extract information and confessions.

Since 2011, scores of high-profile individuals have been detained in Maekelawi under Ethiopia’s draconian anti-terrorism law, including journalists and opposition politicians, and held for months under the law’s lengthy pre-charge detention period as their “cases” are prepared for trial.

“Getachew,” a 22-year-old ethnic Oromo, was snatched from his university dorm, driven hundreds of kilometres to Addis Ababa, and locked up for eight months in Maekelawi. His parents were never informed of his whereabouts; he was never charged or given access to a lawyer; and never appeared before court. He was ultimately released on condition that he would work for the government.

Like Getachew, many of the people detained in Maekelawi over the past decade are political prisoners — arrested because of their ethnicity, their real or perceived political opinions and actions, or journalism work. Voicing peaceful dissent or criticism of government policy is increasingly risky.

In a new report, ‘They Want a Confession’: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station, Human Rights Watch documents how the police who run Maekelawi have tortured and ill-treated detainees during investigations. Former detainees held in the facility since 2010 described how investigators slapped, kicked, and beat them with batons and gun butts. Some were held in painful stress positions for hours upon end.

Some are held in solitary confinement for days or months. Getachew said he was held alone and shackled for five months: “When I wanted to stand up it was hard,” he told me. “I had to use my head, legs, and the walls to stand up.”

Those held in Maekelawi’s two worst detention blocks, nicknamed by residents Chalama Bet [dark house] and Tawla Bet [wooden house], described particularly dire conditions.

To make matters worse, investigators use access to basic facilities and needs to punish or reward detainees. Even access to the toilet can depend on the whim of the police, as Getachew explained: “I was only allowed to use the toilet once a day, although after two or three months, I was allowed twice… They want to get something, and either they get some evidence or they don’t.”

Access to daylight is also restricted; one person said that he was taken outside for just a few minutes three times in 42 days in the dark cells. Several former Chalama Bet detainees complained of lasting vision problems.

Detainees have also been denied access to their families and legal counsel, particularly those detained on politically motivated charges.

Former detainees described being forced, often while being verbally abused and beaten, to sign statements and confessions for crimes they did not commit. Sometimes the confessions are presented in court as evidence or used to put pressure on those released to support the government and ruling party, as in Getachew’s case.

Most recently, the prosecution submitted statements gathered in Maekelawi from prominent members of the country’s Muslim community who were charged under the anti-terrorism law in 2012 for organising peaceful protests. There is credible information that several of the defendants were mistreated in Maekelawi, making their statements questionable.

The fate of those passing through Maekelawi’s gates is largely unknown to the outside world. Tackling the regular abuses of the rights of political prisoners’ right in the heart of the capital requires first acknowledging the violations and then making a commitment to address the culture of impunity among security forces.

Ethiopia’s leaders should publicly state that torture and other ill treatment is prohibited, and should take concrete steps to hold to account those found responsible for these abuses.

Most important, the Ethiopian government should ensure that no one is ever arrested for exercising their basic rights, including by peacefully expressing their political opinions.

That means urgently overhauling Ethiopia’s draconian civil society and counter-terrorism laws. But change is unlikely to happen unless key regional actors such as the African Union, the African Commission on Human Rights Peoples’ Rights, and Ethiopia’s foreign donors make their concerns known.

Turning a blind eye to the abuses in the centre of Addis Ababa should no longer be an option.

Laetitia Bader is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.



Oromo language gets an advocate

(A4O, 20 October 2013) A Melbourne Oromo activist, Toltu Tufa, is driving an ambitious push to revitalise learning in her native African language. Social media is buzzing with positive responses to her efforts in reviving education in the once-doomed Oromo tongue.

According to SBS Tv reporter, Luke Waters, Toltu Tufa is a young lady with abundant energy and a clear objective. “My aim is to create Oromo educational resources for every child in every family in every home,” she says.

Frustrated at a lack of resources for Oromo language and culture classes, she created her own.

Not one to do things by halve, Toltu first visited and consulted nine Oromo communities around the world before devising the package comprising flash cards, posters and books.

She says community input ensured images and information are culturally appropriate, relevant and effective

An internet presence is critical in reaching more of the estimated 40-million Oromo people globally, but Toltu says there are practicalities to consider.

“I think with on-line technology there is a real potential for this to catapult into something viral… something massive,” Toltu says.

“I also think there’s still room for the hard copy books because there are so many countries where people don’t have access to technology and don’t have access to internet and wi-fi.

A website spruiking the program was launched last week and the hits are already in the thousands.

But for Toltu it’s all about the classroom.

“More than the verbal response…it’s the physical response that I see in children when they see the products,” she says.

“Their eyes light up and they say, ‘wow this is something I’ve never seen before’.

“And looking at the parents, some of the parents have been quite emotional saying I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

But one response means more than most.

“I think one person that who reacted like that who touched me most deeply was my dad.”

And she says he’s played a key role.

“When it came to the Oromo language, the only person I had was my Dad,” Toltu says.

“The way he taught me was literally verbally.

“This is how we do things, this is how we speak, this is what the Oromo language is about.

“He taught me with pen and paper and growing up that’s what everybody else seemed to be doing.”

In broken English, Abdul-Wahab Tufa describes his pride for his daughter’s work, and memories of a time when the Oromo language was banned in Ethiopia.

Yes, punishment…put in the jail make some problem some people death,” he says, describing the punishments that speaking the banned language could exact.

Toltu Tufa says it’s a privilege to have ensured the survival of a language for her father and community.

“I feel really lucky that I’ve got a tool that I can use to help grow what my Dad actually planted a very long time ago.

“I feel really, really privileged to be able to do that and to be able to do that with my community. (It’s) not just me saying, ‘Hey this is what I’ve got, how we going to make this work?’

“But everybody is giving me feedback and suggestions and (we’re) creating something together. That’s been the most special part for me.”

Now, Toltu’s seeking funding to roll the program out globally – but there are no flash cards or posters involved in this appeal.

She has taken to YouTube to send her message.

“Regardless of where you are in the world, let me know if you have what it takes and together lets pledge to preserve a language whose story needs to be told.”


Oromo Activists Formed New Media Foundation

(A4O, October 18, 2013) After extensive consultation, over several months, with various segments of Oromo society, a group of community leaders, human rights activists, feminists, journalists and attorneys who are committed to the principle of democracy, human rights, freedom and justice, formed the Madda Walaabuu Media Foundation (MWMF).

According to, the foundation is committed to creating relevant media outlets (website, radio, TV, etc.) for the purpose of elevating knowledge about the Oromo people and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa. “The MWMF media outlets will specifically focus on the flagrant human right violations – past and present – against the Oromo people and other marginalized nationalities in the region.”

The name “Madda Walaabuu” encapsulates the deepest meaning enshrined in Oromo democratic values as manifested in its democratic institutions – Gadaa, Qaalluu, Ateete, Jaarsummaa. In Oromo language, the word Madda means “source” and the word Walabuu means “independence” and hence, the founders of MWMF adopted the name Madda Walaabuu to embody the essence of these values in this new critical initiative.

MWMF is a non-governmental, non-partisan, and non-profit organization, incorporated and registered in Washington, D. C., USA.  It is operated by board of directors and administrative staff under the direction of Executive Director.  The MWMF media outlets are run by experienced journalists. It is a membership based organization, which seeks the support and participation of all interested and committed Oromo and all persons of goodwill who have the desire to empower the Oromo, so that they can confront the 21st century in their own terms.

The Oromo, although constitute the most populace nationality in the Horn and Sub-Saharan Africa,  – there are about 50 million Oromo in the region – have remained the invisible majority due to the legacy of conquest, colonization, and continued marginalization.  At the present time, the Oromo people do not have access to any source of independent media, which has the capacity to inform, educate them about their basic needs and their fundamental rights. MWMF believes that having access to independent media is an essential requirement for the survival of any indigenous nation in the 21st Century.

MWMF is committed to creating relevant media outlets (website, radio, TV, etc.) for the purpose of elevating knowledge about the Oromo people and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa. The MWMF media outlets will specifically focus on the flagrant human right violations – past and present – against the Oromo people and other marginalized nationalities in the region. It will also work towards  making people aware of their environment and social concerns like education, health and others. It proposes to engage the Oromo at home and abroad relative to the issues, which will have profound impact on their future.

In addition, it proposes to engage Oromo neighbors regarding common interests and common strategies in facing the 21stcentury.  It will engage Oromo community leaders, human rights activities, journalists, feminists and scholars in promoting Oromummaa and Oromo national unity.

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