Yassin Juma: My 49 days in Ethiopian police cells
I was in hell for 49 days.” Those are the words Kenyan journalist Collins Juma Osemo alias Yassin Juma used to summarise his arrest and detention in Ethiopia.
The experience still haunts him, six days after he landed back in Kenya after being released.
In an interview with the Sunday Nation at his home in Nairobi on Saturday, the journalist, who was arrested moments after the assassination of Oromia musician Hachalu Hundessa in July, said he wants answers from the Ethiopian government on why he was detained for almost two months on trumped-up charges.
Juma says he went to Ethiopia after a ban barring him from setting foot in the country was lifted in August last year and returned to the country again in January this year to cover the Ethiopian Christmas, which is celebrated in January in line with its Orthodox practices.
He had been barred from traveling to Ethiopia in 2009 after the airing of his TV news report on the tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia rubbed Addis Ababa the wrong way.
During his travel there in January this year, he says he was also contracted by British broadcaster Sky News to shoot a documentary under his Horn24 Media Company.
“I was there to do positive stories about Ethiopia when we were arrested as we covered opposition politician Jawar Mohamed’s rally. I was never officially charged throughout the 49 days that I was incarcerated. There were only proposed charges which did not stand in court eventually.”
For 49 days, police kept saying that they were still investigating the matter and needed more time. In the end, the Attorney-General issued a statement and said that the arrest was wrongful and the detention illegal because of the language barrier between Juma and his accusers. He can barely speak Amharic, the official language in Ethiopia.
According to Juma, the police later claimed that his arrest was a result of mistaken identity, “but they still kept me inside for 49 days”.
He said he was categorised as a political detainee and accused of incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence, and plotting to assassinate Ethiopian ruling party senior officials. “I shared my cell with all the opposition political leaders who had been rounded up earlier. Most of them are still detained there,” he said.
After his arrest, Juma says he managed to get a lawyer, and that he expected Kenyan officials in Addis Ababa would be there as he was arraigned. That never happened.
“The first time I saw a government official was 19 days after my arrest and I was asked if I needed a lawyer. I told them they were 19 days late,” he said.
Because he was labeled a political detainee, he was not allowed to talk to anyone from outside. “I never spoke with my family for all those days I was incarcerated and my lawyer only visited me twice.” This episode, he says, has wrecked him psychologically.
“I thought I was a tough fellow because I have been through a lot in Somalia, but detention also detains your mind,” he said.
He slept on the floor while in custody, ate from the same floor, and survived largely on bread and water because he could not stomach the prison menu.
He had been released after 35 days in custody but was re-arrested outside the police station.
“All of a sudden, six armed men came with a small van, and then I started protesting,” he said. “I mean, ‘why are they stopping us?
We’ve just been freed.’ So, while we were protesting, they started beating us. One of us was hit against the wall. I sustained a broken rib and hurt my back. We were forced into a vehicle.”
The vehicle drove around the city for about 20 minutes then the men took Juma and the others back to the police station they had just been released from, and then left them there, the journalist said. After his re-arrest Juma was taken back to court, this time accused of being an international hacker. He believes this was because the documentary he was shooting for Sky News was about a project funded by Ethiopians in the diaspora that introduces e-learning to at least 10 secondary schools in the Oromo region.
“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received our delegation before and after completion of establishment of servers in the 10 schools as a pilot project. I was still in the process of interviewing, traveling, and editing at the time of my first arrest,” he said.
After three days, they announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
“When they took me to court, I insisted that we should be tested for Covid-19 because there was no running water, the toilet was dirty and we were using our dirty hands to eat communally,” he explained.
After the results came, 68 detainees were found to be Covid-19-positive and were put in isolation at a different block. The following day Juma led a protest while incarcerated because of the horrible conditions they were subjected to.
“We demanded better food and a cleaner detention centre. A few days later I was transferred to a clinic, thanks to a letter that I wrote to the Nation Media Group, and which was published by the Daily Nation in Nairobi.”
Juma categorically denied that he had opted to stay in Ethiopia as reported by the Kenyan embassy in Addis Ababa after he was discharged from isolation and set free.
The Foreign Affairs ministry in Nairobi had reported that “Juma is now free to return to Kenya after his arrest and subsequent release from police custody and from Woreda 7 Health Centre, where he was in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19 while in police custody”.
He refuted that claim, saying “I never said those words; all I wanted to do was come straight home”.
“The Ethiopian Government’s Ministry of Health travel regulations required that I spent 14 days in house isolation and be issued with a Covid-19 status certificate by the Federal government upon completion. “I was ready with my luggage set to fly back home immediately after I left the health facility only to be informed about this new regulation by a Ministry of Health official. This was also clearly communicated to the Kenya Embassy upon my discharge from the health centre.”
He said he got an alternative means to have a certificate issued by the African Union, and after five days flew back home on Monday. Now he is demanding an apology from the Ethiopian government for the way he was mistreated and compensation for being incarcerated wrongfully.
– Hilary Kimuyu