Yassin Juma credits heartfelt letter from jail for freedom
What you need to know:
- I made several requests to the detention centre authorities to be taken to a referral hospital for a proper medical attention. They were flatly rejected.
- With high fever and a stubborn migraine, I struggled to write a letter on the blank side of an old government memo that had been traded to me by a detained police officer (news from outside is exchanged as currency in jail).
“Yassin Juma! Enkuan desalek! Enkuan desalek gwadegna!! (Congratulations friend)”
(nation)–The loud shouts in Amharic stirred me from my sleep. It was 3.40pm and my cell was jammed with detainees who stripped off my blanket, got me up from my mattress and each hugged me to congratulate me.
“Gwadegna, Yassino! You are free! Today go to Bole Mikael and eat Shekle tibs! Zare Shiro yelem! (No more shiro today),” one overjoyed detained army commando said as he helped me pack my stuff after a loudspeaker announcement at the Sostegna detention centre declared I had been freed. I was still in a state of confusion from my deep afternoon sleep.
I was very reluctant to accept the news. After all, the last announcement confirming my release only ended up in my re-arrest and brutal beating just outside the detention centre.
In Ethiopia, murder suspects were released by authorities after the outbreak of coronavirus at this detention centre, but never political detainees like the group I belonged to.
In prison tradition, inmates sang an Amharic freedom song, packed my stuff in a small paper bag and and out I went, saying goodbye to my cell mates at Sostegna.
“Aizoachu (It shall be well)”.
Without a word to confirm my status, a female police officer took me through some paperwork and ushered me out of the detention centre into a waiting ambulance that sped off, negotiating through the busy Addis Ababa traffic.
For the first time in almost two months I was in a vehicle without handcuffs and mean armed security personnel beside me. After 25 minutes through the Ethiopian capital’s rush hour traffic, I was dropped at the Yeka Sub-City government Covid-19 isolation centre.
Upon registration, I joked to the ambulance medic, “I think you forgot something, the handcuffs” as I stretched my hands towards him. But he responded, in a serious tone: “My orders were to drive you to this place, I am not a police officer, just a medic.”
“Then I guess that means I am a free man?” I asked.
“I guess so,” he replied as a female nurse at reception took my details.
“It’s the letter. I think it made it,” I thought to myself.
The nurse probably wondered what this Kenyan man she had seen covered on television news was mummering about.
“Mindinew? Aizo, aizo. Eshii?” (What’s wrong? It shall be well, ok?) Nurse Yerushalem said with a comforting smile.
“Eshii,” I replied, fighting tears at the end of 49 days of incarceration and coronavirus contraction. I was free at last but at same time fighting a deadly disease.
Smuggled out of jail
One international TV station termed the notes that I smuggled out of jail and got published by the Nation as “the letter that tipped off the scale”.
In truth, I had been in jail for 47 days by the time the letter reached editors in Nairobi.
My health was failing and I could hardly wake up from the thin mattress on the cold damp floor of my cell seven days after 67 detainees and I were confirmed to have contracted coronavirus.
Upon my arrest, I had been hopeful that I would be released soon since I believed I was wrongfully detained. Time and again.
I desperately tried to explain before the court that I was just a journalist doing my work. The federal police officers who had arrested me could hardly communicate in English to comprehend that I was conducting an interview with the family members of detained opposition leader Jawar Mohamed in the wake of the unrest that followed assassination of popular Ethiopian Musician Hachalu Hundessa.
I was facing very serious charges; accomplice in the murder of a police officer, attempted assassination on ruling party official, blocking funeral procession of slain musician Hachalu Hundessa, instigating protests in Addis Ababa and Oromia that led to deaths of tens of people, damages from the protests and illegal satellite installment and leaking confidential government information.
I was desperate. Days turned to weeks and months yet I was not released, despite the fact that one of the reasons I was in the country was to do a documentary for government-affiliated tv station OBN.
Back in Nairobi efforts by the Kenyan government to have me released, acting under pressure from the public, had hit a wall. The first consular visit I received came 18 days into my incarceration.
I made several requests to the detention centre authorities to be taken to a referral hospital for a proper medical attention. They were flatly rejected.
With high fever and a stubborn migraine, I struggled to write a letter on the blank side of an old government memo that had been traded to me by a detained police officer (news from outside is exchanged as currency in jail).
I hoped I would find a way of sneaking it to the Nation. It was my last hope for freedom. But I was just gambling.
I was fighting injustice of being kidnapped and re-arrested by security personnel after I was granted bail. I was also fighting coronavirus. The clock on my life was ticking.
I had also become the last hope for many wrongfully detained persons who would line up at my cell to share their stories, hoping I would send it to human rights organisations or the press.
I had managed to leak information about two underage detainees, Khalid Towfik, 16, and Arif Hassan, 17, to the media and rights groups. A day after, the two were released, ending their 15-day misery at Sostegna detention centre
I had also brought the media’s attention to the coronavirus outbreak at the detention centre, as well as a hunger strike by Covid-19 positive detainees, which resulted in some panic among the detention authorities. It resulted in some changes in our diet and overall treatment.
But this time, the letter was about me, it was a matter of life and death as my health deteriorated.
I took part in my first ever protest in Ethiopia, organised by two inmates, murder suspect Mesfin and fraud suspect Ahmed. It was a protest for better conditions in detention for the Covid-19 detainees.
“Feti enfeligalen” (We want Justice), we shouted in Amharic, facing the administration block attracting the attention of the police chief in his 3rd floor office, forcing him to come down to the cells with at least 20 officers to break the protest.
But he pledged to change our diet, provide us with masks, soap and maybe move us to an isolation centre, which were our demands in a signed petition.
Back to the letter to the Nation, I was not sure about the date as I had lost count of the Gregorian calendar and thus indicated the Ethiopian date 13 Nahesa. Because of my Covid-19 status, I could not attend court proceedings and hence was not in touch with any of my four lawyers.
“Please sanitise,” I added a note to my lawyer.
A detained army commando smuggled the letter to a suspect on the next block who was to appear in court next day and he managed to get it to my lawyer who handed it over to the Nation. I crossed my fingers and prayed it would reach the world.
Somehow, the letter was published swiftly and it worked wonders. I was freed and sent to the isolation centre to complete the mandatory recovery and quarantine.
But a look back at the jail time reminds me of a horrid life. A day at the detention centre starts with police officers unlocking cell doors at 6 am. I used to lead a late morning prayer for the eight detained Muslims.
Alternatively, a soft spoken human trafficking and murder suspect, Shariff, would be the Imam.
A quarter-full small cup of black tea and hard “daboo” bread would be our breakfast after a headcount by three Addis Police Officers on duty. It preceded thirty minutes of physical exercise or what Ethiopians call “Isport” just to keep our mind and body fit. Detention can get to your head and mess you up.
By 7am, the loudspeaker would be calling out names of those to attend another day in court.
For labelled political detainees, the court proceedings came with disappointments. The norm was for prosecutors to fail to present evidence to charge us and playing the trick of asking the court for more days to investigate, claiming our cases were complicated.
Murder and robbery suspects were been released on bail to decongest the detention cells when coronavirus broke out, but never political detainees.
“Why would my government lock up a Kenyan journalist?,” One jailed civil servant from Dire Dawa asked as we played a game of socks football one evening. “I respect Kenyan journalists. Do you remember the Kenyan journalist Mohamed Amin? He saved this country by alerting the world about the 1984 famine. He saved millions of lives,” he added, referring to the revered Kenyan photographer famed for the infamous Ethiopian famine in the 1980s.
Amin would, incidentally die in an Ethiopian Airline crash in the Indian Ocean near the Comoros Islands in 1996.
Cut off from my addiction to social media, I had cultivated a new habit; reading before I dozed off hoping may be the next day would come with some good news that all political detainees be released. It remained an elusive dream.
I am currently on a mandatory 14-day self-isolation after recovering from covid_19 as is required by the Ethiopian health ministry. I have not refused to return home as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had earlier erroneously indicated. I am looking forward to be re-united with my children, grandson and co-parent in Nairobi as soon as am issued with a covid-19 negative status certificate.
The Nation letter had tipped off the scale at a time the Foreign Affairs CS had a deadline to issue a statement to parliament why I remained in detention despite a Addis Ababa High Court decision to free me.
But the Kenya public, fellow journalists, bloggers, rights groups, wide international and local media coverage of my arrest contributed.
The National Assembly, through MP Aden Duale played a crucial role in my release by pressuring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Kenya Embassy to engage the sometimes aloof Ethiopian government to have me released.
Ethiopia’s Attorney-General would at last issue a statement that I was “wrongfully detained” citing “language barrier.”