Detention Memoir: Eleven detainees, eleven days. What really happened


From left, journalist Zelalem Workagegnehu, blogger and rights activist Mahlet Fatahun and blogger/journalist/rights activist Befeqadu Hailu as pictured next to the police station where the eleven of them were detained for eleven days 


Befeqadu Hailu, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, April 09/2018 – Have you ever lived in a square meter room? I did, but not in a literal way. It happened in Nifas-silk police detention center in the last 11 days. Forty people have been sleeping, eating and even urinating in a 32 square meters’ room. A person has been sleeping in less than a square meter. Of these 40 people, the renowned politician Andualem Aragie as well as journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesgen Desalegn were included.

On Sunday, the 25th of March, Blue Party had a luncheon to thank former political prisoners the Ethiopian state has recently released. After the luncheon, some of the guests, including myself, who attended the event as a an activist-reporter, went to Temesgen Desalegn’s family house. Journalist Temesgen was also released 5 months ago from Ziway/Batu federal prison after serving three years of sentence  with bogus charges of ‘incitement’. At Temesgen’s place around Jomo condominium, in western part of the city of Addis Abeba, there was a mini event where some activists and friends of the former political prisoners prepared to honor the latter. The event was an informal gathering in a compound. By the time most guests have left, two policemen came in and took off the flag that was hanging on the wall inside the compound. The flag didn’t have the official emblem on it, and it is not lawful to display it in public. In our defense, the event wasn’t formal nor public; and, it is a global culture to hang civil flags on civilian spaces.

Nonetheless, the policemen asked us to pick two persons so they will take them to police station and talk to them about the incident. We resisted not to do that and eleven of us were all taken accompanied by many other policemen who were called in for help by the first arrivals. At the police station, things got serious than we had expected them to be. The police officers first accused us of displaying unlawful flag, and after hearing our defense they later brought accusations related to violation of the current state of emergency that prohibits a public gathering – which the event was not.

That night, when we were sent to three of the detention rooms at the Nifas-silk sub-city police detention center, the rooms were too congested to add a single person. I was with blogger Zelalem Workagegnehu, who was released from prison two months ago, in the first room. We bribed the room’s ‘capo’ and he managed to find the two of us a place in between sleeping guys so we can rest our body without movement – like a statue. Then, I asked the ‘capo’ if there were any prisoner held by the Command Post. He pointed to a row of people laying on the floor and told me they were all held by the Command Post and added, “theirs is different; they were not even taken to court”. In the following days we would learn 81 people were detained under the state of emergency (SOE) Ethiopia declared for the second time.

In the detention center, there are only three rooms and they are all filled beyond their capacity. Previously, I was told, the rooms were a bit relaxed than this. They are now overfilled with prisoners of the SOE.  Almost half of the inmates are held by the Command Post. The 32 square-meters’ room (they call it ‘3rd room’) used to have a maximum of 27 people in normal days. The room has only one square meter window. It is filthy and hot. The other two are relatively big rooms with two windows each but contained more than their capacity. During the night, inmates are locked in the rooms and have to use a barrel in need of urinating.

Before our arrest, none of us had a clue that there was a mass arrest under the current SOE. As a victim of the past SOE that lasted 10 months from October 2016, I was scared. I was afraid our case might get very complicated and we might stay jailed for long. I was even more scared for Andualem and Eskinder who had only been free for a month after six years and six months in jail.

The next morning, we got out of our rooms and gathered in the small compound of the detention center. There, many prisoners of SOE came in and introduced themselves to us. Most of them were jailed three weeks earlier during the market strike in Sebeta, a city located in Oromia special zone in the outskirt of Addis Abeba. One of these prisoners is Alemu, (whose family name I forgot), a police commander in the town of Sebeta. Alemu told me he was detained because he resisted against the Addis Abeba’s police intervention in his town during the market strike.

Commander Hailemariam Abraha, chief of the police station we were held in, called on the eleven of us to his office and explained to us, very politely, that our case should be seen by higher officials. He then moved us to an office-space where it was very convenient to stay; we spent two nights ‘enjoying the privileged’ room than the rest of the prisoners in the other rooms. He looked certain that we will spend very short time. However, after we told the news about the detention of more than 80 prisoners by the Command Post in that place to our visitors and after they informed the news to the media, we were back to the detention rooms which Eskinder perfectly called as ‘inhuman’. When we were returned all the men were sent back to the same room, 3rd room. Commander Hailemariam Abraha didn’t even dare to see us in the face since then.

I was happy we were back there because it was better to suffer with all the victims than to be ‘fairly’ treated alone only because we have media contacts to report about our conditions. Even back in the detention room, with the help of other SoE detainees such as Felmeta Amenu, we were privileged because all the inmates cooperated to leave us the best place out of respect. However, the privilege we were given couldn’t save Temesgen’s back pain from worsening.

In the middle of all these, the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected and sworn in. Our visitors told us his speech turned them all optimist. All of us, the detainees of the Command Post in that place, hoped the SOE will be uplifted very soon. That night, eleven of us were singled out and taken to an office. We were asked to fill bail forms and were returned back to our rooms. We hoped that we would be released the next morning and also that the rest of SOE detainees will follow us. It didn’t happen the next morning and not in the following day too. It was mind boggling but we were ready for all. We have already established a culture of picking topics, discussing them, and sharing our experiences to one another. We had also started to enjoy the evening time talent shows of the prisoners. The talent shows included jokes and songs. Felmeta was a star in playing resistance songs while our ‘capo’ has specialized in playing songs changing lyrics of famous songs into prisoners’ terms. After all, we were all experienced in making the best out of a miserable situation.

Suddenly, in the evening of Thursday April 6, we were again called out of our rooms and were told we would be released by calling bail for each of us. Our friends, who have been waiting outside for the past few days in case we were lucky to be released during or after working hours, came in and signed to bail us out. The toughest part of our release was to leave those detainees of the Command Post, who didn’t get as much publicity as we did, behind us.

Alemu, the Police Commander from Sebeta told me, with his eyes full of tears, “I had recently had surgery; I’m barely sleeping. Please be our voice”. It was also painful to leave behind Felmeta among others who were worried about our comfort more than theirs. I hope to meet them soon. I hope the SOE will be lifted sooner than later. AS



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