Arbitrary Detention, Abuse and Torture, and Execution of Detainees

For years, the Ethiopian armed forces and other security services, including the police, have detained hundreds of civilians for allegedly being ONLF members or supporters. Periods in detention without charge range from a few days to—more commonly—several months or even years, and detainees are often re-arrested upon release, even if they change locations.

Although persons from all backgrounds and ages—including many elders—have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, government security forces have targeted certain groups – market traders, school and university students, business leaders, and opposition politicians—on suspicion of spying, organizing, or providing financial or other support to the ONLF. Others have been detained simply because they have relatives in the ONLF, or after having disagreements with military officials (such as demanding compensation for vehicles commandeered by the army).

Individuals arrested are held in a variety of detention facilities: military bases, federal police prisons, and local, administrative police facilities. There are also unofficial detention centers. In Jijiga alone there are a range of detention centers, four or five of which were repeatedly mentioned to Human Rights Watch by former detainees who had suffered or witnessed abuses: the Regional Central Prison known as “Jail Ogaden” (because of the large numbers of Ogaadeeni held there) which reportedly holds between 400 to 600 prisoners; kebele and wereda jails, of which the center in Jijiga’s kebele 4 is the most notorious—it holds several hundred prisoners in a range of conditions, including underground cells;  Jijiga’s military bases—Garabcase and the air defense facility called Ayer Hail; and Qumaadaha, a former police training center located in Jijiga’s kebele 5, which is reported to hold prisoners of national security interest and political detainees.132

Although there appear to be few judicial protections for detainees across the spectrum of detention facilities in Somali Region, the likelihood of mistreatment appears to be greatest for persons held in military custody, where most detainees find themselves outside the reach of Ethiopia’s legal system. Legal requirements limiting the period of detention without charge and requiring judicial oversight of detentions are routinely ignored.133 Almost all persons formerly held in military detention interviewed by Human Rights Watch suffered severe beatings and torture. As described above, detained women and girls have routinely been raped at military bases and Human Rights Watch has also documented several dozen extrajudicial executions in military bases, sometimes carried out in front of other detainees in order to terrorize them into confessing involvement with the ONLF.

The mistreatment of persons in custody is a serious violation of both the laws of war134 and international human rights law.135  Detained individuals must be treated humanely at all times; it is irrelevant whether or not they are members or supporters of an armed opposition group.

While there has been a surge of arrests since the April 2007 ONLF attack on Obole, arbitrary detention and torture in military custody are long-standing problems in Somali Region. Many former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch recounted not only the abuse they suffered in military custody after the April 2007 attack, but also similar arbitrary arrests and abuse they had personally experienced previously, often dating back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.

For example, Amina, a 19-year-old student, told Human Rights Watch how she was detained in 2003 (when she was 15) for nine months, then again in 2006 for six months, and fled Ethiopia when the soldiers came looking for her again following the Obole attack in April 2007. During both periods of military detention, she suffered regular, severe beatings and torture.136 Muhumed, an 18-year-old student, told Human Rights Watch how he had been detained at military camps in Dhageh Medow for three months in 2004 (when he was 15), for 19 days in May 2006, and for nine months in December 2006. He told Human Rights Watch about the beatings and torture he endured during his last detention:

I was taken out from my home the last time and they brought me to the military camp and they beat me for three hours. They accused me of being with the ONLF and giving them help. I told them I was a student….At first they beat me on my head with sticks, and then they beat me with an electric rope all over my body. One was kicking me. Then they tied my hands behind my back. Then they spoke to me for hours, they said if I tell them the truth they would release me. I told them, “I told you the truth already, before you beat me. I have no information about what you are talking about.” One of them then kicked me in the face and I lost a tooth. I was in a lot of pain. The next two nights they beat me the same way. They tied me out in the sun for the whole day, next to the guard house.137

Arbitrary Arrest and Detention

Many of the former military detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that they had been arrested on suspicion of supporting the ONLF without any evidence to support such suspicions.138 As one young man put it bitterly, “Anyone with a bowl of water is suspected of supplying the ONLF.”139 A young woman voiced the same sentiment, saying “If you make tea in a teashop, the army would accuse you that the man who bought tea is an ONLF member….There is no way to escape.”140

Indeed, the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch indicate that the armed forces arrest those they suspect of supporting the ONLF on the slimmest conjecture, and then attempt to beat and torture confessions. Most of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied having any connection to the ONLF, although some people mentioned having relatives, often distant relatives, involved in the ONLF. This is an insufficient basis for detention.

The military’s broad, unchecked power to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and abuse suspects is illustrated by the case of Ruqiya, a prominent trade woman in Dhagahbur. In March 2007, she was transporting a truckload of grain from Aware to Dhagahbur when soldiers stopped her, demanded she offload the truck, and then commandeered the vehicle. When the vehicle was later destroyed in an ONLF ambush, her husband went to the police to report the loss and ask for compensation. That same night, soldiers took her husband, saying they just wanted to question him and would soon return him. The husband has not been seen again.

When Ruqiya and male elders from her clan went to the army base the next day to inquire about her husband, the soldiers accused her of lying, saying her husband had run off with the ONLF, and promptly detained her at the military camp. That same night, the camp commander viciously beat her:

When the sun came down, the commander came and they put me in a dark hole. He started asking me lots of questions. He then started beating me with a strong stick, on the head and on the legs, and another also beat me with his gun. They were telling me that I was distributing food to the rebels and that they would kill me. They took off my headcover, but they left me with my clothes. They beat me like this for about half an hour. I was terrified that I would be killed.141

Her clan elders finally convinced the military commander to release her so she could be hospitalized for her injuries. However, after her release, she found her store had been closed with a government seal, and that all of her stock had been impounded by the authorities. Afraid she would be “disappeared” like her husband, she fled to Kenya.142

Torture and Beatings

Almost all of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch who were detained on military bases reported severe beatings and torture during their arrest and interrogation. Detainees frequently reported being beaten and tortured to the point of unconsciousness. Sexual violence against female detainees occurs frequently at military bases, as discussed above. Torture, beatings, and sexual violence all appear to be an officially tolerated practice by military commanders, and there are incidents of base commanders personally participating in all such abuses.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 30 victims of severe beatings and torture at military bases and has documented several dozen additional cases from family members of victims and former detainees. These abuses took place at military bases throughout the conflict-affected area, including in Jijiga, Wardheer, Kabridahar, Dhagahbur, Shilabo, Fiiq, Hamaro, Dhuhun, Qoriley, Gabagabo, Isku Dholey, Higlaleey, Dhagahmadow, Garbo, Yu’ub, Sheygoosh, and Harar, indicating that beatings and torture are a routine and widely tolerated practice at military bases. Many additional cases of beatings and torture were documented involving army soldiers on patrol or when staying at temporary military bases during patrols.

Soldiers typically start violently beating persons almost as soon as they are taken into custody. Twenty-four-year-old Ayan told Human Rights Watch how she began being beaten within earshot of her home after soldiers came to arrest her in the middle of the night:

During the night, the soldiers came to our home. We were asleep. They knocked at the door and my mother opened the door. They said, “Where is your daughter?  We need to ask her some questions.”  There were at least 10 soldiers.

As soon as I left the house, they started beating me – my mother could hear my screams. They were beating me with wooden batons. Three of them were beating me while the others were holding my arms. They just started beating me without saying anything. I lost all of the feeling after a while, the beating was very bad.143

Twenty-year-old Faduma, a student from Shilabo town, was repeatedly taken from her home at night in July 2007 to be questioned by soldiers about suspected links to the ONLF. The first two nights, she was not seriously harmed, but on the third time she was taken from her home, the soldiers beat her unconscious, leaving her for dead:

The next [third] night, at 4 a.m. or so, three Ethiopian soldiers came to my house again. Two were dressed in military uniforms, the other had his face covered with a piece of white cloth. Unlike the previous night, they pulled me outside right away by my scarf, and locked the house and took me with them violently. They slapped me two times, and told me to walk with them.

I was taken towards the military camp called “Darash.” There is a water-well between the town and the camp. They threatened to throw me inside the well if I didn’t confess to them. They threatened to strangle me if I didn’t confess, and throw my body into the well. At that moment, they began slapping and kicking me, and punching me with their fists, throwing me from one to the other.

The investigator withdrew a pistol from his waistband and threatened, “If you don’t confess, I will force you to tell me everything you know with this pistol.”  I was confused and felt helpless, so I started crying. He ordered the soldiers to beat me until I confessed. Besides threatening to rape me, they said they would use the pistol to kill me. They threw me down on a pile of garbage. As I fell down, one of the soldiers kicked me in the back. At that moment, they left me on the pile of garbage and I fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I found a herder who was watering his animals by the well holding my hand.144

Once at the military camps, the detainees are regularly taken from their cells for “interrogation.” Soldiers order the detainees to confess involvement with the ONLF, which often involves severe beatings to the point of unconsciousness. A 30-year-old shopkeeper from Wardheer town described the beatings and torture he received at the “Transport Tanks” military base on the town’s eastern outskirts:

I was taken to the military camp, to an investigative officer called Hailu. He and two soldiers accompanied me and took me to a room in the camp, it had no door that could be closed, it was just an open room. It had garbage inside, it was filthy. They said, “You will tell us the truth or you will die here.”  I replied to them that I don’t have any lies to tell them, because I don’t support those people [ONLF]. They insisted I tell them about my financial support to the rebels, and they questioned me for some minutes, telling me to tell them the truth, that I was with the ONLF. I refused to admit to such things, and then the investigator ordered the two soldiers to start beating me.

They started beating me with the backs of their AK-47 guns. They hit me once with the gun in my face, and then started beating me. They also hit me with the gun barrel in my teeth, and broke one of my teeth. Then they started beating me with a fanbelt on my back and my feet. It lasted for more than one hour. Then they tied both my legs and lifted me upside down to the ceiling with a rope, and kept beating me more, saying I had to confess.

For two months, we underwent this same ordeal, being taken from our rooms at night and being beaten and tortured. They were selective, not everyone was beaten this badly every time. It was just a random process, different people suffered differently. They would beat me about two to three times a week, at least.145

Ahmed, a 22-year old student, was arrested in July 2006 on suspicion of supporting the ONLF, and taken to the military base in Dhagahbur. He described how he was interrogated and beaten virtually nightly for 18 nights, and remained in poor health from the beatings when interviewed by Human Rights Watch more than one year later:

I was tortured a lot at this camp. When the night came, they took me to a separate room. I was beaten the first night, with sticks and also kicked. They kicked me in the head and in the left kidney, I still have problems with my vision now. The first night they didn’t ask me anything, they just beat and kicked me. Five soldiers did the beating. I was beaten to the point of unconsciousness.

The next day they left me alone [until the evening]. At night, they came to get me and took me to the room. There were five soldiers. They interrogated me, saying I was working with the ONLF, this was the first time they asked me any questions. One of them was speaking to me in Somali. I told them I was a student and just studied my lessons, and had nothing to do with the rebels. They started beating me again, and one of them punched me very hard in the private parts and I became unconscious. They took me back to my room…In the evening, the soldiers came again. It was for 18 nights consecutively, that is why I am still very sick now. Then, they beat me every few days. I was kept in the camp for two months. Then I was transferred to the police jail until August 2007. I was never brought in front of a judge for trial, they just kept me [detained] like this.146

Extrajudicial Executions at Military Bases

According to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian soldiers have carried out extrajudicial executions of detainees at a number of military bases in Somali Region, including military bases in Wardheer, Dhagahbur, Duhun, Hamaro, and Shilabo. In most of these cases, the detainees were extrajudicially executed in front of the other detainees at the military camp, often in the presence of the camp’s military commander, demonstrating high-level responsibility.

Following the May 28, 2007 grenade explosions in Dhagahbur, the army extrajudicially executed two students and two nomads at the military base in Dhagahbur. An 18-year-old student detained alongside the two students who were executed explained to Human Rights Watch that they were part of a group of five students, between 16 and 18, who had been arrested at the Makhtal Dahir school in May 2005, and since then imprisoned at a prison in Dhagahbur town on charges of supporting the ONLF. He explained how after the May 28 grenade attacks, soldiers came to the prison, read out the names of the four to be executed, and then took them away to the military base:

After the explosions in Dhagahbur in May, two of the students detained with us were killed. They killed Beddel Mohamoud Abdi and Hussein Abdi Farah. One night they were taken out by the army. They were killed with two other men, nomads, who were detained from the countryside. One of them was called Ahmednasir Dahir. Before they were killed, the army came and read out their names and were taken to the kifletor (division) where they were killed. The kifletor is very near to the regional headquarters.147

The bodies of the four victims were found outside the military base on May 30, showing signs of strangulation. Since the students executed by the soldiers had been in detention since May 2005, they could not have played a direct role in the grenade explosions in Dhagahbur on May 28, 2007. It appears that their execution was a military-sanctioned act of reprisal for the grenade attacks.

Halima, a 17-year-old student from Duhun, told Human Rights Watch how she had personally witnessed the execution of two of her classmates while being detained at a military base in Duhun. In front of an estimated 65 detainees, the military commander of the camp tried to force the two girls to confess to being ONLF members before ordering their summary execution:

I witnessed the killing of two girls. They wanted to intimidate the rest of us, so they brought the two girls who they said were the strongest ONLF supporters. They made the rest of us watch while they killed the two girls. First they tried to get them to confess, saying they would kill them otherwise. Then they shot both of them with their guns.

Their names were Faduma Hassan, 17, and Samsam Yusuf, 18. Both were students. They were my classmates. We were all just students, we had nothing to do with the ONLF. This was the second day after I arrived in the jail, at lunchtime. The commander was present at the time of the killings, he was the one speaking to the girls. All of the detainees, girls and boys, had to watch the killings. We were about 65 in total at that stage.148

A 19-year-old student from Hamero town in Hamero wereda, Fiiq zone, told Human Rights Watch how the Ethiopian army detained two male students suspected of involvement in the ONLF in early June, and strangled them to death inside the military base before throwing out the bodies. She herself went to see the mutilated bodies, which lay unburied in the streets for two days before the military commander allowed them to be buried:

Some of our students were killed after the oil incident. Ahmed Mohammed, 18, a student, was killed. He was arrested many times before. After the oil incident, they took him to the military compound in June 2007 and they killed him. They strangled him. I saw his body, he had suffered a lot of torture. But if we cry and recognized his body, they would have arrested us also. After they killed him, they threw his body into the street. They initially refused to allow his relatives to bury the body, but after two days, they gave permission to allow to bury the body. He had been arrested two times before this time. Then, they just arrested and killed him.

Another one was killed together with him, another student, Mohammed Omar, 17, he was also strangled the same way. He had been arrested four days before he was killed. They were not student leaders or Ogadeni activists, but they were accused of supporting the ONLF. They have some distant relatives who are ONLF soldiers, not commanders.149

From May to July 2007, at least seven detainees were extrajudicially executed at the “Transport Tanks” military camp outside of Wardheer, according to a former detainee who was detained at the military camp during this period. According to the former detainee, the soldiers first took five men and women from the communal cell he shared, and killed them by strangulation to terrorize the other detainees into confessing: “They take a rope and wrap it around the person’s neck, and then two soldiers pull from opposite sides. Then, when the persons were dead, they would bring us to see the bodies and tell us we were to die the same way if we don’t confess to them.”150 Among the five killed were Fartoum Ugas, in his 20s; Nour Abdi, about 25; Daher Hussein, 21; a woman named Hawa, married and in her 30s; and a man in his 40s from Jinnoole village. The bodies were later taken away in a military truck, and may have been buried on the grounds of the military base.151 A few nights later, a man in his mid-40s and an older woman were removed from the same communal cell in the evening. The next morning, the detainees saw their bodies near the washing facilities, and noticed that the man had visible head injuries and bleeding (the woman’s body was covered with a blanket).152

Former Detainees and Collective Punishment

Most of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch obtained their release from military detention after relatives paid bribes to military officials and stood as personal guarantors for the released detainee. A few of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch obtained their release by escaping from detention facilities. In most cases, released detainees were asked by their families to flee the region, so they would not be re-arrested. When released and escaped detainees fled, the military authorities often responded by detaining their relatives or guarantors.

Twenty-year-old Nimo was detained in December 2006 in Shilabo, and spent three months in military detention and in police custody, suffering regular beatings and rape. After three months, she was finally released when six clan elders stood as personal guarantors for her. When her mother took her to Kenya for medical treatment and safety, two of the six elders were detained by the military, and later released on 5,000 Birr bail (about US$550).

Khadra, a 17-year-old girl, was detained in Duhun military base for three months in 2007, suffering severe beatings and multiple rapes. Her father managed to collect 3,000 Birr (about $330) to pay to the military officials as a bribe, and at least 12 elders stood as personal guarantors to the military commander. Following her release, she fled to Kenya, and many of the elders who stood as guarantors were arrested and remained in detention at the time of the Human Rights Watch interview in September 2007.153

132 Human Rights Watch interviews, telephone interviews, and confidential communications, November and December 2007.

133  Article 19 of the Ethiopian constitution provides that persons taken into custody should be brought before a court within 48 hours.

134 See Common article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions; Protocol II, art. 4.

135 See ICCPR, art. 7; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, art. 1.

136 Human Rights Watch interview with Amina, Nairobi, September 23, 2007.

137 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhumed, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 27, 2007.

138 In some of the arbitrary detention cases researched by Human Rights Watch, the only apparent evidence produced by the ENDF (to the detainees) was the fact that other detainees, following beatings and torture, had given their names. “Evidence” obtained under torture is particularly unreliable, as torture victims will often give false information in an attempt to end torture and abuse.

139 Human Rights Watch interview with 28-year-old man from Fiiq zone, (name withheld), Nairobi, September 23, 2007.

140 Human Rights Watch interview with 49-year-old woman, Garissa, September 21, 2007.

141 Human Rights Watch interview with Ruqiya, Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

142 Human Rights Watch interview with Ruqiya, September 22, 2007.

143 Human Rights Watch interview with 24-year-old Ayan, Nairobi, September 23, 2007.

144 Human Rights Watch interview with 20-year-old Faduma, Garissa, September 21, 2007.

145 Human Rights Watch interview with 31-year-old shopkeeper, Garissa, September 20, 2007.

146 Human Rights Watch interview with 22-year-old Ahmed, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 27, 2007.

147 Human Rights Watch interview with 18-year-old student, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 25, 2007. This extrajudicial execution is also documented by the Ogaden Human Rights Committee, “Ogaden: Ethiopian Forces Massacre, Displace and Starve Out the Civilian Population with Impunity,” p. 23.

148 Human Rights Watch interview with Halima, Nairobi, September 23, 2007.

149 Human Rights Watch interview with 19-year-old student from Hamero, Nairobi, September 23, 2007.

150 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Garissa (Kenya), September 20, 2007.

151 Human Rights Watch interview, Garissa, September 20, 2007.

152 Human Rights Watch interview, Garissa, September 20, 2007.

153 Human Rights Watch interview with Khadra, Nairobi, September 23, 2007.