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Ethiopia: Torture in Somali Region Prison Senior Officials Implicated in Nonstop Regimen of Abuse

Ethiopia: Torture in Somali Region Prison Senior Officials Implicated in Nonstop Regimen of Abuse (Nairobi, July 5, 2018) – Prison officials and security forces have arbitrarily detained and tortured prisoners for years in the notorious regional prison

Ethiopia: Torture in Somali Region Prison
Senior Officials Implicated in Nonstop Regimen of Abuse

(Nairobi, July 5, 2018) – Prison officials and security forces have arbitrarily detained and tortured prisoners for years in the notorious regional prison known as Jail Ogaden, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Ethiopia’s new prime minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, should urgently order investigations into the horrific situation, and the government should ensure regional security forces and officials are held accountable.

The 88-page report, “‘We are Like the Dead’: Torture and other Human Rights Abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia,” describes a brutal and relentless pattern of abuse, torture, rape, and humiliation, with little access to medical care, family, lawyers, or even at times to food. The prison’s security forces, including the Somali Region’s notorious paramilitary force, the Liyu police, are implicated. The unit reports to the Somali Region president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Illey. Most prisoners are accused of some affiliation with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a banned opposition group, but most never face charges or trials.

“Ethiopia’s new prime minister admitted security forces have tortured Ethiopians, but he has yet to tackle Ethiopia’s culture of impunity and ensure accountability for abuses by the security forces,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific situation in Jail Ogaden requires immediate and transparent investigation into the actions of the regional president, other senior Somali Region officials, and the Liyu police.”

In a remarkable break with the government’s normal posture of denial, Ethiopia’s prime minister acknowledged in a speech before parliament on June 18 that security force personnel engage in torture. He did not speak of abuses in Jail Ogaden in particular or comment on what the government would do to ensure accountability for torture throughout Ethiopia or justice for the victims.

Human Rights Watch interviewed almost 100 people, including security force members, government officials, and 70 former detainees and documented abuses in Jail Ogaden between 2011-early 2018.

“I was kept in solitary confinement in complete darkness for most of my [three year] detention,” one former prisoner said. “I was only taken out at night for torture. They [prison officials] did many things to me – they electrocuted my testicles, they tied wire around them, and they put a plastic bag with chili powder over my head. I often had a gag tied in my mouth so I wouldn’t scream too much.”

Detainees said they were stripped naked and beaten in front of the entire prison population and made to carry out humiliating acts in front of fellow inmates to instil fear.

“They once made me lie naked on the ground in front of everyone and roll around in the mud while they beat me with sticks,” said Hodan, 40, who was imprisoned without charge for five years. “Once they made an old man stand naked with his daughter…you would feel such shame after these treatments in front of all the other prisoners.”

Prisoners said that top jail officials, including senior Liyu police officials, not only ordered torture, rape, and denial of food, but personally took part in the rape and torture.In overcrowded cells at night, head prisoners further violently interrogated detainees, passing notes on to prison leaders, who then selected people for further punishment.

The serious overcrowding, torture, starvation and disease outbreaks. grossly inadequate food, and water and lack of health care and sanitation led to deaths in detention.

Many children are born in Jail Ogaden, including some allegedly conceived through rape by prison guards. Female prisoners described giving birth inside their cells, in many cases without health care or even water.

Almost all of the former prisoners interviewed said that they had not been to court or been charged with any crime. Former judges told Human Rights Watch that Somali Region officials pressured them to sentence detainees they have never met or seen any evidence on to prison terms.

In 2007/8 the Ethiopian army committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during counterinsurgency operations against the ONLF, including extrajudicial executions, torture and rape. The Liyu police, established after that period, have repeatedly committed similar crimes in the Somali Region, continuing the pattern of collective punishment. Liyu police incursions into Oromia Regional State beginning in 2016 have left hundreds dead. About one million people from those areas were displaced.

The federal government should substantially reform the Somali Region’s Liyu police and hold its senior members to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Torture is a serious problem throughout Ethiopia and Human Rights Watch regularly receives reports of abusive interrogations countrywide. Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission has inspected Jail Ogaden on many occasions since 2011, but reports of those visits are not publicly available, and it is not clear what actions, if any, were taken to address abuses.

Many former detainees said that the most visibly injured, children, and pregnant women were held in secret rooms or moved out of the prison ahead of commission visits. Others said they were told what to say to commission officials. Those who spoke to them openly faced brutal reprisals.

Ethiopia’s prime minister should establish a federal commission of experts to investigate abuse at Jail Ogaden that would identify officials, regardless of rank, to be criminally investigated for abuse in the prison. This commission should also develop a process to evaluate the cases of each prisoner currently held at Jail Ogaden, and either release them or charge them with a crime based on credible evidence.

“The scale of torture and abuse in Jail Ogaden cannot be overstated,” Horne said. “Dr. Abiy should continue to publicly condemn torture and take action on Jail Ogaden to show he is serious about stopping torture and ending impunity.”

“We are Like the Dead’: Torture and other Human Rights Abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia,” is available at:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Ethiopia, please visit:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on human rights abuses in the Somali Region, please visit:

Selected Accounts (All names are pseudonyms.)

On the nonstop cycle of abuse, from Abdusalem, 28:

I was kept in solitary confinement in complete darkness for most of my [three-year] detention. I was only taken out at night for torture. They [prison officials] did many things to me – they electrocuted my testicles, they tied wire around them, and they put a plastic bag with chili powder over my head. I often had a gag tied in my mouth when they did all this so I wouldn’t scream too much. During the day, I was given very little food – one bread and occasionally a bit of stew. They also raped my wife [who was also in Jail Ogaden]. She gave birth to a child that was not mine there.

On torture involving water techniques, Fatuma, 26:

They would tie my hands together with rope, put us in the pool deeper than my head and keep you in. They would put around 10 people in that pool at a time. …They ask you all the usual questions: ‘Who do you know from ONLF? How did you support them?’ Some people they pull out and there is no response from them. I don’t know if they died.

On nightly self-evaluations, Ali, 32:

When night falls the evaluations start. It is only inmates doing this to each other, in the morning the report is given to the guards. The more you deny, the worse the torture. The better the confession, the less the beatings. The more you admit to during the evaluation, the more people will clap during your self-assessment, and if you don’t admit to things the kabbas [head prisoner] or prisoners will beat you right there.

On stripping and humiliation of detainees, Mohamed, 28:

I witnessed hundreds of men being undressed completely. It was at night and it was raining and muddy. They had called us out of the room, told us to take our clothes off, lie down and roll in the mud. Then some of us were taken back to our rooms naked. Others were told to walk in line holding each other’s genitals. Once you go back into the room you can let go. The guards took pictures of this laughing.”

On the psychological torment of being pressured to abuse other prisoners, Abdirahman, 31:

We were always being told to humiliate each other, but the worst was one day they brought together a number of prisoners, and each was told to beat another person to death. They had metal sticks to give us for this. I was told if I refused then I had to kill myself. When we refused, they just beat us – but it’s that constant psychological punishment that is the worst.

On giving birth in detention, Ayan, 31:

None of the children born while I was there had any [professional] help, only from the women prisoners. I requested [medical care] treatment for my birth because I knew I would give birth soon. Liyu police said, ‘Put it [the baby] in the toilet, they are of no use, they will just grow up to be a sympathizer of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).’ I asked to be taken to hospital for birth. They laughed. I asked for extra water. They refused. So I gave birth in the jail. The women had a sharp piece of metal they used to cut the umbilical cord and they tied it themselves.

On the constant state of fear and the regular deaths in detention, Hodan, 30:

Every night I could hear them hitting people. I heard so much crying. In the morning when people are sitting in front of my house eating breakfast everyone would speak quietly about who had been taken away the night before: ‘Mr so and so was killed by beating last night, so and so was raped last night, or beaten last night.’ Every morning we would go through the list of those who had died or just didn’t return to their cell. We lived in a constant state of fear that we would be next.

On the visits of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, Amina, 34:

“When the human rights commission comes they take out the serious cases, and just leave the new people. I was one of the people they were hiding. They took me to the military camp, Garbassa. First time I was there for seven days. They took out elderly women, and those who had been beaten in the face, or had wounds, or had small children.

Felix Horne

Senior Researcher- Ethiopia/Eritrea

Human Rights Watch

Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram: +1-646-201-6705

Twitter: @FelixHorne1

Review overview
  • rezen July 5, 2018

    Subject: “Ethiopia: Torture in Somali Region Prison Senior Officials Implicated in Nonstop Regimen of
    Abuse”, Human Right Watch July 5, 2018

    Commentary, 5 July 2018
    Is this new in Africa? Let us be honest. The abuse of Africans by Africans and by other marauders is as old as Africa itself. Let us ask: in the so-called “liberated” fifty-four (54) African States how many can be classified as democratic States conscious of human dignity and liberty? Dear Reader: You be the judge.
    So, if we have an iota of consciousness we must ask ourselves as to the real purpose of the Report and other multiple Reports from various institutions? We don’t have to spell it out to any one – we all know it. But we can say, it has NOTHING to do with helping the poor, innocent, decent, exploited, perpetual slave African citizen. CRY, MY BELOVED AFRICA

    • k.tewolde July 6, 2018

      rezen keep pounding the nail of truth home. The Hutus and Tutsis carnage,the Biafra ethnic cleansing,the daily slaughter of innocent African life in South Sudan,the bloody war between ELF and EPLF……..who is killing who with whose weapon,we don’t manufacture Ak-47,RPG’s,or 106 mm howitzers but we know how to use it against each other.What a lucrative market for the war machine where human life is cheap but the earth is precious. The sad thing is the local chiefs(tyrants) serve their masters by offering their own people as a sacrifice.This dark continent one more time finds itself surrounded by the same vultures only this time the far eastern Mongolians are in the mix. I hope one day when the Pangaea drifts toward the 22nd parallel things will be different.

      • rezen July 6, 2018

        Thanks k.t. It is a delight and educational reading your commentary..

        Let me try with your last line: “Quote “I hope one day when the Pangaea drifts toward the 22nd parallel things will be different” Unquote

        let me take a chance and share with you an ‘ancient’ COMEDY conversation between a new immigrant from South America and his American Boss. It was a story when every body wanted to come to America (and still do). The name of the main character was Hose’.
        Hose’: Boss, I am going to save one dollar everyday and I will be a MILLIONAIRE in one million days
        Boss: That is good, Hose’, but it is two thousand-seven hundred…. years.
        Hose’: Ohhhh! That is long, Boss, BUT I WILL BE PATIENT.
        እንተ ዘይሞትክን ጥዕና ኣለክን
        k.t. am I off track from the inherent meaning of your commentary. If not have a good laugh, never the less. rezen

  • Michael Tesfamariam July 5, 2018

    This cynical UNHR report as usual, is designed to inject ethnic driven poisonous political chaos and bloodshed among Ethiopian minorities in order to embolden Amhara and Oromo against the people of Tigray. No sensible person would actually ever believe this organisation as credible human rights warrior. They know what they are doing; to systematically marginalise and disenfranchise the people of Tigray from ever being able to participate in the political, social and economic opportunities of the country. They have been doing this for years to Eritreans as well; instead of encouraging Eritreans to fight against their own domestic tyranny, they taught them how to drop their guns and run away. No other dictator as generous as Issais was ever seen in history who has distributed guns and grenades to every member of a family in Eritrea so they defend their own right and freedom, yet Eritreans choose a cup of milk and bread in foreign soil to freedom and justice at home, they were cajoled into embracing a culture of desperation, treachery, hopelessness, above all they are taught how to become good at creating tensions and animosity against one another.Now, if the UNHR group was a force for good, they could have already intervened and stopped when thousands of innocent Eritreans were strangulated to death at home for reason. On behalf of all those compatriots who are dying in Eritrea under Issais and Colonel Ghebredingil, I thank you to President Trump for his morally justified action to withdraw his country from this vile and disgraceful organisation.

    • SenAfe July 5, 2018

      Why do you pick Colonel Ghebredingil, you must have something against Akelegizay teweledti?

      • Sol July 6, 2018

        Michael Tesfamariam and Senafe is the same person (Tekhlay) who became desperate for assenna not confronting him on religious and regional bases so he is following new tactic replying to himself hoping that people will fall on his trap. QADIMA.

        • Michael Tesfamariam July 6, 2018

          Why would you guys defend anyone from Akele, no matter what crimes they have committed even the rapist and butcher colonel Ghebrdingil? I think you people are suffering from severe inferiority complex. I wish you a speedy recovery though I doubt you will ever recover.

          • Sol July 6, 2018

            DIA and his cronies regardless their religion, religion and social group are all enemies of Eritrean people. Tekhlay your mission is failed, assenna will remain the mainstream media outlet and voice of the voiceless people of Eritrea.

      • Michael Tesfamariam July 6, 2018

        ,,,,because he is from Akele!

  • Solomon Frew July 6, 2018

    Can a leader who is implicated in the killing, torturing and displacing of the Gedeo, Ethio Somali, Amhara, Tigre and other minorities from the Oromo region be legally and morally trusted to perform a fair investigation? Human Rights Watch is one of the forces working to dismantle the federal system and weaken the Ethio-Somali region which is resisting to join Dr. Abiy’s nonsense of ‘Medemer’!

  • abe July 6, 2018

    Oil, OIL, OIl, OIl politics.

    There is no surprise here.

  • Tes July 6, 2018

    What is going on! We know now who are the handlers of the new government in Ethiopia. This HRW has no shame to come at this junction of time with ridiculous accusation. This can damage more to the agency than the accused. The reason why they had singled out the Somalia region is obvious . The regional governor was critical to their chosen baby to the change introduced so far and the direction indicated.. Even though the governor was in his remit to question the current fundamental change, the Americans see the potential threat. not only from Tegreans but from the Somalians. From now on they will try to discredit him my spreading false accusation. The aim is simple to silence him. Singling out to this region while the abuse of ethnic minorities in Amhara and Oromo are happening as we speak.. It is laughable report . It will damage the reputation of this organisation than the accused and the know it but the order came from the top!

    In current Ethiopia there is unholy alliance of four actors with different objectives; Oromo,Amhara,Eseyas & America. On the other hand there is potential alliance in making Tigrians, Somalians and.other minorities in Ethiopia.

    Oroma & Amhara aliance is based on the Enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is a matter of time until they turn on each other. The Amhara sole aim is to be the ruler of Ethiopia- only power and outlet to sea.. The Oromo in the other hand un-united but have bad history against Amhara. It was just yesterday Amhara consider Oromo sub-human. Hence their temporary alliance won’t last long.

    The American: the problem arise due to the Africans looking to East and specifically China. American and west had lost their influence in Africa. Any opportunity no matter what its consequence they will try to regain their influence in Africa. They don’t give a toss what follow. Hence the situation in Ethiopia is an excellent opportunity to create mayhem. What I advise to Ethiopians are to be careful, They can easily loss what they gained in 27 years..

    Eseyas has developed extreme hate against his cousins (weyane) combined with is sadistic character plus is egoism and unbalance state of mine, he has stopped long ago thinking rationally. The game for him is to safe his skin. Same like Americans he doen’t give a toss about the interest of Eritrea or Ethiopia for that matter.

    Dr Abiy looks like a man in a wrong place. Preaching and governing are two different things. You can say all nice thinks to your subjects what they want to hear but delivering what is promised is much harder than that. The guy naturally gifted of talking and like to talk as well. It reminded me his talk the talk of Eseyas in 1993 when he said we are not like other African leaders, we democratic and progressive organisation and every one of us except few believe him. Talk is cheap! and it was proved time and time again. In three months he showed the tendency of dictatorship if he will left without check on time there is high possibility to be strongman like Mengstu. He introduce fundamental change beyond his remit without consulting key stakeholders. Their constitution doesn’t allow that but for now he doesn’t seem to care.

    The second potential alliance are the Tigrians, the Somalians and the other minorities currently washing the situation closely. If the situation won’t correct quickly it is impossible to them to accept the old order of Amhara or Oromo. They knew what they need to do and they are starting to voice their concern. If they will be ignored they are capable of hitting back hard. and all can get mess..