COMMENTARY: REVISITING THE LIVES OF ETHIOPIAN FREED PRISONERS. ARE THEY REALLY FREE?
Mahlet Fantahun (Translated by Zecharias Zelalem)
Addis Abeba, Nov. 07/2017 – Looking at the lives of Ethiopians who were once incarcerated for no sufficient reasons then “freed” from prisons often after arduous court battles, such as the case for Zone9 blogging collective in which I was one, or many others whose trumped up charges fail the smell test, or those who finish serving their sentences and are eventually released, I fall short of sufficiently expressing how overwhelming my emotions are. It often leaves me with a combined feeling of ruefulness, hopelessness, frustration and helplessness.
The truth is, despite the jubilant public outburst that follows news of being “released from prison,” for those who are “released” life never returns to what it was prior to their unjustified detentions. Socially, politically and financially ex-prisoners are destined to suffer. Physically, many of those who take a walk a mile will begin to agonize from both the physical and psychological wounds inflicted while in prison, leaving post-prison life full of memories and longing for what life used to be prior to being thrown behind bars.
Of course facing challenges can and does bring out the best in us due to the fact that it further hones our ability to endure and resist the worst of what life throws at us. All the same, once the jubilant outpourings are over and the news of regaining their “freedom” have faded away, very little is documented about the lives of Ethiopia’s ex-prisoners after returning to the society they came from.
With that in mind, below is a highlight of how life changed for some of the ex-prisoners after being discharged from various prisons and returned to the other side of the fence.
April 2014: Megersa Worku was a 5th year law student at Haramaya University, in East Hararghe Zone of the Oromia regional state in eastern Ethiopia, when he was detained by security forces. Along with six other university students, he was subsequently charged with on terrorism, found guilty of the charges and was awaiting verdict at the infamous Ma’ekelawi prison, a prison facility known as a notorious torture gulag. While at Ma’ekelawi, Megersa Worku was severely beaten and forced to sign on a paper confessing to crimes he didn’t commit.
After enduring two and a half years of mind-numbing trial and pain, while the rest of defendants charged with him were sentenced to various terms in jail, Megersa was declared innocent and was acquitted of all the terrorism charges against him. At this time, he was detained at not Ma’ekelawi but Qilnto, another prison facility located on the southern outskirt of the capital Addis Abeba. Upon leaving Qilinto after having been declared innocent, Megersa stood at the entrance gate expecting to walk away from the facility to his freedom. It was not to be. A group of people approached him in a vehicle, picked him up and dropping him off back at the entrance to Ma’ekelawi prison, where he spent another traumatizing week.
Megersa would eventually leave the premises, but his life wouldn’t continue from where he had left it off before prison. He made multiple requests for re-admission at the university, all which were rejected and this is despite the fact that he had already been declared innocent of any crime. Freed from prison, he is unable to finish his education. He has been forbidden the opportunity to become a productive member of society and provide for himself or his family. When he was detained in April 2014, Megersa was merely months away before finishing his studies and being able to serve his country and community; instead he was tossed into prison on trumped up charges and robbed of the chance to live out a fruitful prodigious life.
A look at the other defendants charged with terrorism along Megeresa, we find Lenjisa Alemayehu, a third year water engineering student from Jimma University who was “freed” after more than twenty months behind bars; Teshale Bekele also a student at Jimma University and was sentenced to a year and a half but ended up spending two years instead. Adugna Kesso was a student at Adama University at the time of his arrest; Adugna would go on to spend four and a half years in jail.
Each of these students repeatedly testified of having being subjected to brutal tortures to force them to sign on confessions to crimes they never committed. Adugna, the Adama University student, recalls his stay at the federal prison we colloquially refer to as “hell” – Maekelawi and says it was nothing compared to the horrors he was subjected to while staying at the holding facility located in Adama, where he briefly stayed at, and dubbed his transfer to Ma’ekelawi as “being sent to heaven from hell.” If the gulag that is Ma’ekelawi is considered heaven, one may not able to fully imagine the horror that the facility in Adama is. Adugna talks of a tragic incident about a friend who had been arrested with him in Adama died en route Ma’ekelawi after succumbing to the wounds he suffered during his beatings. Adugna witnessed his friend’s body being dumped on the road by police afterwards.
All four of these young university students are no longer in prison today and have since been applying for a second chance to return to their their studies, but to no avail. With all the doors of opportunity firmly locked, they are now left in limbo and with nowhere to go, and forced to rely on their families and friends to get by.
It is not only university students who have been unable to continue with their interrupted lives upon being told they could walk free. Ethiopians who were formerly employed and were earning a steady income prior to being detained have encountered similar fates. Cases of institutions refusing to take back their freed former employees and not offering compensations are most common. Applying for new work becomes impossible once potential employers get wind of the applicant’s personal history. And others, due to the effect of the mental and physical scars, are unable to function properly and thus are unable to work.
Due to the severity of beatings he received at the Ma’ekelawi prison, Abel Wabella, a member of the Zone 9 blogging collective, had lost his hearing through one of his ears. After a year and a half of incarceration and sporadic court appearances, he too was declared innocent and free to walk in November of 2015. Prior to his detention, Abel was an employee at one of the most reputed institutions in the country, Ethiopian Airlines. Upon his release, he went back to his former workplace, with an official court document declaring his innocence of any wrongdoing and requested to continue working. There he discovered that its employer had basically declared him persona non grata. He was told that during his detention, he had been fired and was forbidden from ever working there again. A renowned brand such as Ethiopian Airlines decided against the norms of professionalism and morality their wrongly detained employee. In fact, as if to add insult to injury, Ethiopian Airlines decided to pursue a legal case against Abel claiming to have lost the money it invested to pay for training Abel as an employee. And today, many members of the zone9 blogging collective are forced to live in exile, scattered around the world.
In an interview with a local newspaper, journalist Temesgen Desalegn, who has recently been released from Ziway prison after serving three years sentence, spoke of his prison ordeal including enduing a severe ear pain sustained as a result of prison torture he was subjected to.
In 2006, Tesfaye Tekalign graduated from Addis Abeba University in Sociology and would later be employed by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture up until April of 2011. On April 20th 2011, he was forcibly detained by men he described as federal security forces and would spend the next twenty three months behind bars being tortured despite having never committed a crime of any sort. During his unjust imprisonment, he was never brought into a courtroom and was denied of the chance to hear exactly why he was arrested in the first place. Freed on April 4th 2013, he told the story of his incarceration in an interview with Finote Selam newspaper, an Amharic weekly.
“I’ve suffered unbearably. They would shock my back with electricity. The torture they inflicted upon my private parts and kidneys affects me to this day. I can no longer control my own urine. My kidneys are severely affected. They would also soak me in water and beat me. Today, I struggle to even speak, they’ve tortured me in an unimaginable ways.”
Tesfaye, who was released in 2013, was rearrested in 2016 as part of the government’s massive campaign of arrests following the year long anti-government protests. During his incarceration last year, Tesfaye was once again subjected to tortured before he was release. Once a free man though, his efforts to seek employment have yielded no result and his former employer, the Ethiopian Ministry of Tourism and Culture, refused to even give him a letter of recommendation or any document indicating employment history with the ministry. His kidneys have healed somewhat and he is considerably better today than in 2013. Nevertheless his health is far from normal and he frequently speaks of throat pain that still hinders his ability to eat normally.
These are but small cases showing what life is like after being free from prison. There is so much more beyond what can be written in a single article. It is safe to assume, however, that health problems (both mental and physical), inability to return to former employment, find new employment or continue pursuing studies, threats and intimidation from federal agents, being constantly under surveillance, harassment, the risk of being rearrested, losing friends who chose to distance themselves out of fear, several forms of isolation, the risk of becoming an outcast, of being evicted by landlords and much more are but few of the commonly shared experiences by by ex-prisoners .
Although the circumstances are much worse on ex-political prisoners, ordinary citizens known for their political dissent in Ethiopia do face a similar fate that are too numerous to quantify because in Ethiopia, being free is not free. AS