October 17, 2013


“One [police officer] hit me on the back of my head with a long black stick and blindfolded me. They took me to their office. These were interrogators…. They slapped me on the cheeks repeatedly…. But these interrogators are not in a position to listen to what I tell them. They beat me again with the black stick and slapped me again. I stayed in that room until midnight. I was exhausted. They took me back to the cell and then took another guy. On the second day of interrogations—the beating was worse. What they want is a confession.”
—Journalist held in Maekelawi in mid-2011, Nairobi, April 2012

In the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, near a hotel and an Orthodox Christian cathedral, lies one of the country’s most notorious police stations, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, commonly known as Maekelawi. Many of Ethiopia’s political prisoners—opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, alleged supporters of ethnic insurgencies , and many others—are first taken to Maekelawi (“central” in Amharic), after being arrested. There they are interrogated, and, for many, at Maekelawi they suffer all manner of abuses, including torture.

Police investigators at Maekelawi use coercive methods on detainees amounting to torture or other ill-treatment to extract confessions, statements, and other information from detainees. Detainees are often denied access to lawyers and family members. Depending on their compliance with the demands of investigators, detainees are punished or rewarded with denial or access to water, food, light, and other basic needs.

This report documents human rights abuses, unlawful investigation tactics, and detention conditions in Maekelawi between 2010 and 2013. For the report Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 35 former detainees of Maekelawi and their family members. Although Human Rights Watch was not able to visit Maekelawi, preventing first-hand observation of conditions and interviews with current detainees, researchers cross-checked information provided by former detainees, who were identified through various channels and interviewed individually.

Allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment at the hands of Ethiopian police and other security forces are not new. But since the disputed 2005 elections, the Ethiopian government has intensified restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, deploying a range of measures to clamp down on dissent. These include arresting and detaining political opposition figures, journalists, and other independent voices, and implementing laws that severely restrict independent human rights monitoring and press freedom.

Since 2009 a new law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, has become a particularly potent instrument to restrict free speech. The law’s provision undermine basic legal safeguards against prolonged pre-charge detention and unfair trials. In this context, Maekelawi has become an important site for the detention and investigation of some of the most politically sensitive cases. Many detainees accused of offenses under the law—including some of Ethiopia’s most prominent political prisoners—have been detained in the Maekelawi facility as their cases were investigated or prepared for trial.

Maekelawi has four primary detention blocks, each with a nickname, and the conditions differ significantly among them. Several former detainees described to Human Rights Watch how they were transferred from one block to another in the course of their investigation, with treatment and conditions of detention linked to cooperation with the investigators. Conditions are particularly harsh in the detention blocks known by detainees as “Chalama Bet” (dark house in Amharic) and “Tawla Bet” (wooden house). In Chalama Bet detainees have limited access to daylight, to a toilet, and are on occasion in solitary confinement. In Tawla Bet access to the courtyard is restricted and the cells were infested with fleas. Short of release, most yearn to transfer to the block known as “Sheraton,” dubbed for the international hotel, where the authorities allow greater movement and access to lawyers and relatives.

Maekelawi officials, primarily police investigators, have tortured and ill-treated detainees by various methods. Detainees described to Human Rights Watch being repeatedly slapped, kicked, punched, and beaten with sticks and gun butts. Some reported being forced into painful stress positions, such as being hung by their wrists from the ceiling or being made to stand with their hands tied above their heads for several hours at a time, often while being beaten. Detainees also face prolonged handcuffing in their cells—in one case over five continuous months—and frequent verbal threats during interrogations. Some endured prolonged solitary confinement, which can amount to torture.

Detainees also described dire conditions of detention, including inadequate food, severe restrictions on access to daylight, poor sanitary conditions, and limited medical treatment. Conditions are particularly harsh during initial investigations.

The coercive methods, exacerbated by the poor detention conditions, are used by the authorities at Maekelawi to maximize pressure on detainees to extract statements, confessions, and other information—whether accurate or not—to implicate them and others in alleged criminal activity. These statements and confessions are in turn sometimes used to coerce individuals to support the government once released, or as evidence against them at trial.

Former detainees and their relatives told Human Rights Watch that they were routinely denied access to legal counsel and family members during the initial weeks of their custody. Some were held incommunicado throughout months of detention. The absence of a lawyer during interrogations increases the likelihood of abuse, hinders any documentation of ill-treatment and torture by investigators, and limits chances of obtaining redress before the courts. In this way police investigators at Maekelawi obstruct basic national and international legal safeguards protecting persons in custody such as those regulating arrest and detention and protection from the use of forced confessions as evidence at trial.

Detainees have limited channels for redress. Ethiopia’s courts do not demonstrate independence in political cases. Courts that have received allegations of detainee torture and ill-treatment at Maekelawi have on occasion failed to take adequate steps to address the allegations. Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch they kept silent about their treatment in court, fearing reprisals from investigators. Others said they had never appeared before a court.

Human rights monitoring of all detention locations in Ethiopia, including Maekelawi, by government agencies is limited and independent monitoring of any kind is insufficient. Representatives from the government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and other officials have visited Maekelawi and have raised some concerns about detention conditions in private and public communications. However, former detainees told Human Rights Watch that commission representatives were accompanied by Maekelawi officials, and the visits have not resulted in concrete improvements in their situation.

Over the past decade Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international human rights organizations have documented patterns of serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment, and torture in many official and unofficial detention facilities throughout Ethiopia. The government has invariably dismissed these findings or conducted investigations that lack credibility.

However, the Ethiopian government has taken some positive steps in recent years to comply with its international human rights treaty reporting requirements and develop human rights policies on paper. In 2010 Ethiopia submitted its first report to the United Nations Committee against Torture, the expert reporting body of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The government has also drafted a national human rights action plan for 2013-2015. The draft seen by Human Rights Watch contains some measures that could help improve detention conditions and treatment of pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners. The plan rightly identifies insufficient access to legal counsel during pre-charge detention, insufficient complaint mechanisms, and inadequate access to food, medical care, and other services as challenges that need to be addressed.

The Ethiopian authorities, particularly the federal police, should urgently adopt concrete measures to address these persistent concerns in Maekelawi and other facilities. Ensuring that suspects enjoy the protections of due process, including the right to understand the reason for their arrest, and access to legal counsel and relatives from the outset of their detention would help reduce abuses.

Prosecutors and judges should also proactively monitor the treatment of persons in custody and investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment without official interference or obstruction. At the same time, they should also ensure protection for detainees who dare to speak out about their treatment.

The authorities should also allow unfettered and unannounced access to Maekelawi and other detention centers throughout the country to independent Ethiopian and international monitors, including human rights and humanitarian organizations, members of the diplomatic community, and United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) human rights mechanisms such as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Unfortunately, the government’s response to criticism of its human rights record has largely been to characterize abuses solely as a lack of capacity, training, or resources, and ignoring the key role of political will, accountability of perpetrators, and redress to victims to end widespread torture and ill-treatment.

Additional resources can alleviate some of the poor detention conditions in facilities like Maekelawi, but real change in the treatment of detainees needs to come from the highest levels of government. Ethiopia’s leadership, from the prime minister to the federal police commissioner and the federal affairs minister, should be sending a public message that the mistreatment of detainees will not be tolerated—and back up such pronouncements with disciplinary action and prosecutions of those officials who violate the law. Crucial for this is a judiciary that has the independence to receive and act on complaints from those in custody and hand down impartial justice. And to deter politically motivated prosecutions in the first place, parliament should substantially amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

Only if such actions are taken would Ethiopia’s government be able to demonstrate that it is truly committed to addressing the serious human rights violations being committed daily.