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(Nairobi) – Ethiopian authorities have subjected political detainees to torture and other ill-treatment at the main detention center in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government should take urgent steps to curb illegal practices in the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, known as Maekelawi, impartially investigate allegations of abuse, and hold those responsible to account.

The 70-page report, “‘They Want a Confession’: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station,” documents serious human rights abuses, unlawful interrogation tactics, and poor detention conditions in Maekelawi since 2010. Those detained in Maekelawi include scores of opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, and alleged supporters of ethnic insurgencies. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 35 former Maekelawi detainees and their relatives who described how officials had denied their basic needs, tortured, and otherwise mistreated them to extract information and confessions, and refused them access to legal counsel and their relatives.

“Ethiopian authorities right in the heart of the capital regularly use abuse to gather information,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. “Beatings, torture, and coerced confessions are no way to deal with journalists or the political opposition.”

Since the disputed elections of 2005, Ethiopia has intensified its clampdown on peaceful dissent. Arbitrary arrest and political prosecutions, including under the country’s restrictive anti-terrorism law, have frequently been used against perceived opponents of the government who have been detained and interrogated at Maekelawi.

Maekelawi officials, primarily police investigators, have used various methods of torture and ill-treatment against those in their custody. Former detainees described to Human Rights Watch being slapped, kicked, and beaten with various objects, including sticks and gun butts, primarily during interrogations. Detainees also described being held in painful stress positions for hours upon end, hung from the wall by their wrists, often while being beaten.

A student from Oromiya described being shackled for several months in solitary confinement: “When I wanted to stand up it was hard: I had to use my head, legs, and the walls to stand up. I was still chained when I was eating. They would chain my hands in front of me while I ate and then chain them behind me again afterward.”

Detention conditions in Maekelawi’s four primary detention blocks are poor but vary considerably. In the worst block, known as “Chalama Bet” (dark house in Amharic), former detainees said their access to daylight and to a toilet were severely restricted, and some were held in solitary confinement. Those in “Tawla Bet” (wooden house) complained of limited access to the courtyard outside their cells and flea infestations. Investigators use access to basic needs and facilities to punish or reward detainees for their compliance with their demands, including by transferring them between blocks. Short of release, many yearn to be transferred to the block known as “Sheraton,” named for the international hotel, where movement is freer.

Detainees held in Chalama Bet and Tawla Bet were routinely denied access to their lawyers and relatives, particularly in the initial phase of detention. Several family members told Human Rights Watch that they had visited Maekelawi daily but that officials denied them access to their detained relative until the lengthy investigation phase was over. The absence of a lawyer during interrogations increases the likelihood of abuse, and limits the chances for documenting abuse and obtaining redress.

“Cutting detainees off from their lawyers and relatives not only heightens the risk of abuse but creates enormous pressure to comply with the investigators’ demands,” Lefkow said. “Those in custody in Maekelawi need lawyers at their interrogations and access to their relatives, and should be promptly charged before a judge.”

Human Rights Watch found that investigators used coercive methods, including beatings and threats of violence, to compel detainees to sign statements and confessions. These statements have sometimes been used to exert pressure on people to work with the authorities after they are released, or used as evidence in court.

Martin Schibbye, a Swedish journalist held in Maekelawi in 2011, described the pressure used to extract confessions: “For most people in Maekelawi, they keep them until they give up and confess, you can spend three weeks with no interviews, it’s just waiting for a confession, it’s all built around confession. Police say it will be sorted in court, but nothing will be sorted out in court.”

Detainees have limited channels for redress for ill-treatment.  Ethiopia’s courts lack independence, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Despite numerous allegations of abuse by defendants, including people held under the anti-terrorism law, the courts have taken inadequate steps to investigate these allegations or to protect defendants complaining of mistreatment from reprisals.

The courts should be more proactive in responding to complaints of mistreatment, but that can happen only if the government allows the courts to act independently and respects their decisions, Human Rights Watch said.

Ethiopia has severely restricted independent human rights investigation and reporting in recent years, hampering monitoring of detention conditions in Maekelawi. The governmental Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has visited Maekelawi three times since 2010 and publicly raised concerns about incommunicado detention. However, former detainees told Human Rights Watch that Maekelawi officials were present during those visits, preventing them from talking with commission members privately, and questioned their impact.

Improved human rights monitoring in Maekelawi and other detention facilities requires revision of two repressive laws, the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. These laws have significantly reduced independent human rights monitoring and removed basic legal safeguards against torture and ill-treatment in detention.

Ethiopia’s constitution and international legal commitments require officials to protect all detainees from mistreatment, and the Ethiopian authorities at all levels have a responsibility both to end abusive practices and to prosecute those responsible. While the Ethiopian government has developed a three-year human rights action plan that acknowledges the need to improve the treatment of detainees, the plan does not address physical abuse and torture; it focuses on capacity building rather than on the concrete political action needed to end the routine abuse.

“More funds and capacity building alone will not end the widespread mistreatment in Maekelawi and other Ethiopian detention centers,” Lefkow said. “Real change demands action from the highest levels of government against all those responsible to root out the underlying culture of impunity.”

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