Abeba, a 31-year-old Muslim woman who worked for a local government branch of Ethiopia’s youth and sports office, was at work when Ethiopian security officials detained her and took her to a military camp.
The authorities accused her of mobilizing Ethiopian Muslims – often ethnic Oromos like herself – against the government, Abeba said. When Abeba denied the allegation, the officers played a recording of a phone conversation she had with her sister, who lives in Yemen. The conversation was about day-to-day matters, Abeba said, but the authorities insisted that Abeba was talking in code, which peaceful Ethiopian activists often do to stay out of jail.
Abeba said she was locked in a small cell. That night, she was raped four times – she doesn’t know by whom. It was dark, and she couldn’t see.
A year ago, the world was rocked by revelations of massive spying by the United States National Security Agency. While few in the US worry that the surveillance will result in threats to their lives or their families, that’s not true in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia – one of the world’s most repressive countries – has virtually unlimited access to its citizens’ phone records, thanks to China-made surveillance technology. A new Human Rights Watch report, “They Know Everything We Do’: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia, based on more than 100 interviews with victims of abuse and former intelligence officials, shows how authorities use access to mobile data and call recordings to harass and arrest people they believe oppose the government. This knowledge is even more disturbing given that torture of political prisoners happens all too often in Ethiopia’s prisons.
Recorded phone calls with family members and friends – particularly those with foreign phone numbers—are played during abusive interrogations in which people are often accused of belonging to banned organizations.
Phone networks have been shut down during peaceful protests and protesters’ locations have been pinpointed using information from their mobile phones. Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s flawed anti-terrorism law, although it seems no warrants were obtained to collect this information.
Spyware developed by British, German, and Italian companies has also been used to target Ethiopians living abroad. Once a person’s computer is infected by such spyware, security and intelligence agencies have nearly unfettered access to files, information, and activity on the target’s computer. They can log keystrokes and passwords and turn on a device’s webcam and the microphone, effectively turning a computer into a listening device. This software, used to target Ethiopians living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway and Switzerland, has been used to capture Skype conversations that have appeared on pro-government websites.
This spyware can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ethiopia is an impoverished country with chronic food shortages, and received over $4 billion in development assistance in 2013 alone. Efforts should be directed at improving the rights of its population, not at using the latest technology to undermine those rights.
In late 2011, Ethiopia’s government began interfering with the rights of the country’s Muslim minority by meddling in the activities of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. In response, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s Muslims, who make up about 40 to 45 percent of the population, took to the streets in protest. It was these protests that authorities accused Abeba of helping to organize.
Abeba believes she was arrested because she received emails from Yemen. The security officials had printed out the emails but couldn’t read Abeba’s native Afan Oromo language and even asked her what was written, Abeba said. The fact that the e-mails came from an Arab country might have been enough for them. The officials also used her Facebook activity as evidence against her: Abeba had posted an Al Jazeera article about the Muslim protests in Ethiopia.
That time, she said, they beat her and let her go.
The second time, she was arrested after speaking on the phone with her sister in Yemen, she believes. Officials listened to her ring tone, which was religious, and called it “illegal.” Then the officers examined her phone and said her many contacts in Arab countries -- her sister in Yemen, a brother in Oman and cousins in Saudi Arabia -- were further evidence of her guilt. But having relatives abroad is common for Ethiopian Muslims because so many flee their country’s poverty for potential work in Arab lands.
The officials didn’t consider that Abeba lived in a region of Ethiopia where few protests had occurred. They detained her for three months. Shortly after her release, she fled to Kenya.
Abeba seems lost and helpless; her family doesn’t even know she fled to Kenya. She is all alone there. She would very much like to call home to let them know she is okay, but she won’t. She’s afraid the call will be traced.