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People visit Ethiopia's infamous Maekelawi prison which was transformed into a gallery in Addis Ababa, September 6, 2019. © 2019 Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Today, Maekelawi, the infamous police station in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was opened for the first time to the public. For years, Maekelawi has been synonymous with abuse and repression. It stopped being operational last year.

Many of those detained in Maekelawi were political prisoners – arrested for their perceived political views or journalism work. The fate of those sent to Maekelawi – except for the more high-profile detainees – was largely unknown to the outside world. Opening up its gates and offering the public a glimpse of its brutal reality may help some former detainees deal with the trauma they endured.  

During research on abuses in Maekelawi for a 2013 report, I spoke to Badessa (not his real name), a 22-year-old ethnic Oromo whose life was turned upside down when one day the authorities snatched him from his university dorm and drove him hundreds of kilometers to Addis Ababa.

He was locked up for eight months in Maekelawi. His parents were never informed of his whereabouts. He was never charged or given access to a lawyer, and never appeared before a court. During his detention, Badessa was abused and shackled for several months in solitary confinement. “When I wanted to stand up it was hard,” he said. “I had to use my head, legs, and the walls to stand up. I was still chained when I was eating.” He was ultimately released on condition that he would work for the government.

Badessa and other former detainees subjected to mistreatment told us that their inability to seek redress, including limited psychological support, prolonged their suffering and made it harder for them to move on.

Opening up Maekelawi offers Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the opportunity to spell out the measures he plans on taking to bring to justice those responsible for torture and other serious abuses and to provide redress for the victims. Badessa and other Maekelawi survivors are entitled to nothing less.  

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