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Human Rights Watch Letter to Honorable Commissioner Maria Teresa Manuela

Re: Torture and other human rights abuses in “Jail Ogaden,” Ethiopia, Somali Regional State

Dear Honorable Commissioner Manuela,

We are writing to you from Human Rights Watch to share with you the findings of our most recent report on Ethiopia, “We are Like the Dead’: Torture and other Human Rights Abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia.” The 88-page report, published in July 2018, documents the torture, cruel and inhumane treatment that prisoners have long endured in Jigjiga central prison, also known as “Jail Ogaden,” in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State.

Based on around 100 interviews, including with security force members, government officials, and 70 former detainees, the report documents abuse in Jail Ogaden between 2011 and early 2018. Human Rights Watch also reviewed 25 hours of video in which “Jail Ogaden” prison guards described their own abusive practices.

Former prisoners described to Human Rights Watch a horrific reality of constant abuse including torture, rape and humiliation, with no access to adequate medical care, family, lawyers, or even, at times, food. Officials stripped naked and beat prisoners and forced them to perform humiliating acts in front of the entire prison population, as punishment and to instill shame and fear. Most prisoners are accused of some affiliation with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an opposition group that was until recently banned, and are coerced into confessing to membership in the group, even if most never face charges or trial. Due to a lack of health care, some prisoners died from their injuries while female prisoners gave birth inside their cells in horrible settings. Cells are often overcrowded.

The prison’s security forces, mainly the Somali Region’s notorious paramilitary force, the “Liyu Police,” are implicated in running the jail and directly ordering torture. Human Rights Watch has on several occasions documented serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions, by the Liyu Police since its establishment as a counterinsurgency force. Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Illey, the Somali Region president, commanded the Liyu police, though he resigned on August 6, 2018 and its current command structure remains unclear. The prison is managed by the Somali regional administration with no meaningful oversight from the Ethiopian federal government.

Ethiopia ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (African Charter) in 1998. Article 6 of the African Charter clearly states that “Every individual shall have the right to liberty and to the security of his person. No one may be deprived of his freedom except for reasons and conditions previously laid down by law. In particular, no one may be arbitrarily arrested or detained.”

The Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pre-Trial Detention in Africa, (Luanda Guidelines) of 2014 affirm that states should establish measures to promote transparency about police custody, including inspections by judicial authorities or an independent body and lay visiting schemes. The Robben Island Guidelines, on the other hand, uphold that states have an obligation to improve detention conditions and design oversight mechanisms. 

Despite the clear provisions in these Guidelines, the Ethiopian government does not allow visits from any international mechanisms. Ethiopia has so far ignored eight standing invitations from different UN mechanisms, including from the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. 

Additionally, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross have no access to federal prisons, police stations, or regional detention center like “Jail Ogaden.” There is therefore no comprehensive independent monitoring of institutions in which prisoners are known to have been tortured. No law enforcement body has been held accountable for human rights abuses.

While the report focuses on particularly egregious abuses in one regional detention facility in Ethiopia, our research and interviews with many survivors over the years show that torture and impunity for torture are widespread across Ethiopia. Positively, on June 18, Ethiopia’s new prime minister acknowledged in a speech before parliament that security force personnel engage in torture. Additionally, on July 24, 2018, the Federal Attorney General said that investigations into torture in detention centers would be conducted, and that his office would forward their recommendations.

 Given the findings of this report, as well as this new opportunity, we would like to encourage you to: 

  • Seek an official invitation to Ethiopia to investigate issues around torture in general, and the case of “Jail Ogaden” in particular;
  • In the absence of an invitation, consider alternative means to gathering information, and report on the issue of abuse in detention centers; 
  • Press Ethiopian government to make information available on the circumstances surrounding “Jail Ogaden” and other detention facilities;
  • Press the Ethiopian government to grant independent international humanitarian and human rights organizations access to detention facilities. 

Attached is a copy of the full report. It would be a pleasure to discuss the findings and recommendations with you further at your convenience, or at the forthcoming session in Banjul in October.

We look forward to receiving your response and maintaining a constructive dialogue with your mandate.

Yours sincerely,

Maria Burnett

Associate Director, Africa Division

Human Rights Watch


Honorable Commissioner Lawrence Muguru Mute

Vice Chairperson and Country Rapporteur, Ethiopia


 Dr. Mary Maboreke

Secretary of the African Commission



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