“We are Like the Dead”Torture and other Human Rights Abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia
In the heart of the eastern city of Jijiga, just five minutes from the University, lies one of the most notorious detention centers in Ethiopia. Jail Ogaden, officially known as Jijiga Central Prison, is home to thousands of prisoners, who are brutalized and neglected. Many have never been charged or convicted of any crime.
Former prisoners described a horrific reality of constant abuse and torture, 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. In overcrowded cells, head prisoners, called kabbas, beat and harassed prisoners at night during interrogations, passing notes on to prison leaders who then chose some for further punishment. The purpose of the torture and humiliation was to coerce prisoners to “confess” to membership in the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a banned opposition group.
This report, based on almost 100 interviews, including 70 former prisoners of Jail Ogaden, documents torture and other serious abuses, including rape, long term arbitrary detention, and horrific detention conditions in Jail Ogaden in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State (Somali Region) between 2011 and early 2018. Interviewees also included government officials and members of Somali Region security forces.
Many of the former prisoners interviewed said they saw people dying in their cells after being tortured by officials. Female former prisoners told of rape. Prison guards and the notorious Liyu police [“special” police in Amharic], brutalized prisoners, at the behest of regional authorities. The prison is subject to almost no meaningful scrutiny or oversight.
The cycle of torture, humiliating treatment, overcrowding, inadequate food, sleep deprivation, and lack of health care in Jail Ogaden is consistent with the government’s long-standing collective punishment of people who are perceived to support the ONLF. Human Rights Watch has previously documented how the Ethiopian army committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during counter insurgency operations against the ONLF in 2007 and 2008, including extrajudicial executions, torture and rape.
Rather than meaningfully investigate the crimes at that time, the Ethiopian government established the Liyu police who have committed a range of serious abuses in Somali Region since 2008. The Liyu police report to the Somali Region president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Illey.
In Jail Ogaden, disease is rampant, basic water and sanitation needs are systematically ignored, while prisoners report deaths in detention following the outbreak of infectious disease. Some former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that corpses sometimes remained in prisoners’ cells for several days.
Female prisoners gave birth in their cells without access to skilled birth attendants, often in grossly unhygienic conditions. The plight of children, some allegedly born in Jail Ogaden from rape by prison guards, is especially tragic. Former prisoners said that lactating mothers received no extra food, and that children received no education. Since 2013, prisoners have reportedly not been permitted any visitors, or to receive food or other goods from relatives.
Release of prisoners is often ad hoc and the length of prisoners’ sentences, when they have one, may have little bearing on when they are actually released.
Former prisoners said that senior Somali politicians including Abdi Illey and Somali Region head of security and head of the Liyu police Abdirahman Labagole appeared regularly at the prison to speak to the prison population. Many of the worst abusers have been the prison heads of Jail Ogaden. Not only do some of these officials appear to have ordered torture, rape and denial of food, but in some cases, former prisoners alleged that they were personally involved in committing rape and acts of torture.
In 2011, Somali Region officials carried out an 11-day evaluation of prison guard performance which corroborated many of patterns of abuse former prisoners described to Human Rights Watch. The evaluation was filmed at the request of Abdi Illey, and then shared with Human Rights Watch several years later when an advisor to Abdi Illey left Ethiopia. On film, guards detail torturing, raping, and extorting money from prisoners, and describe how various senior officials at Jail Ogaden directed them to engage in torture and rape.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a federal government body mandated to carry out investigations into allegations of human rights abuse, has inspected Jail Ogaden on many occasions since 2011, but there are no publicly available reports on those visits. It is not clear what actions, if any, were taken to hold anyone accountable for abuses uncovered during those inspections. Many former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that they had been prepped by prison officials on what to say and what not to say to the Commission. The most visibly injured, along with children and pregnant women, were reportedly held in secret rooms or moved out of the prison ahead of Commission visits.
Those who spoke openly to Commission officials were brutally beaten, sometimes to death, in the days after the visits. The EHRC did not respond to our letter requesting information about their work to address abuses in Jail Ogaden.
Ethiopia’s federal system gives considerable autonomy to its regions, including the Somali Region, to carry out many governance functions. Regional detention facilities in Somali Region have little federal oversight and the regional government has neither the will nor capacity to monitor detention conditions.
Very few of the former prisoners we interviewed said they had ever been to court or been charged with any crime. Even when prisoners did appear in court, most did not have access to defense lawyers, could not present an adequate defense, and were confronted with courts that lack independence and are reluctant to challenge government abuses. This all leaves prisoners in Jail Ogaden with virtually no channels for redress.
Torture and impunity for torture are well-entrenched problems throughout Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch regularly receives reports of abusive interrogations countrywide using techniques such as severe beatings and water and genital torture, similar to what Jail Ogaden’s former prisoners describe. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, there have been no reported instances of the federal government holding anyone accountable for torture, and prisoners’ complaints of torture in detention are routinely ignored by the courts.
The Ethiopian government’s response to requests for investigation into alleged rights abuses is to state that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) can carry out such investigations, but EHRC investigations have generally not met the most basic standards of impartiality. There is little transparency around its work. The government has repeatedly rejected calls for independent international investigations into abuses and has ignored repeated requests from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and eight other UN Special Rapporteurs to visit Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, took office in April 2018. Since then, he has pledged to implement progressive reforms and his government has closed Maekelawi detention center in Addis Ababa, a site notorious for torture and abuse of prisoners. He also acknowledged that torture exists in Ethiopia in a June speech to parliament, a rare admission for an Ethiopian prime minister.
Thus far, however, the new prime minister has not stated how his government will tackle the larger problem of impunity for torture. While many former prisoners would welcome the closure of Jail Ogaden, such a move would not address the abusive nature of the region’s security forces, the impunity of those who engage in serious abuses, or the weak rule of law in Somali Region.
Ethiopia should comply with the provisions of its own constitution and fulfill its core obligations under international human rights law—in particular the absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment—by systemically addressing persistent allegations of torture and illegal detention. Ethiopia’s new prime minister and senior officials, including in the federal police and the military, should urgently and publicly condemn abuse of prisoners in Jail Ogaden and other prisons in Ethiopia, to send an unequivocal public message that mistreatment of prisoners will not be tolerated—and back up such announcements with disciplinary action and prosecutions of officials who engage in such practices.
In the face of numerous and horrific allegations, Dr Abiy Ahmed and parliament should establish a federal Commission of Experts (COE) for Somali Region. The Commission should investigate abuse at Jail Ogaden and recommend specific officials, regardless of rank, to face criminal charges for the mistreatment of prisoners. This should include specific investigations into senior Somali Region officials such as President Abdi Illey and current head of Liyu police Abdirahman Labagole.
Furthermore, authorities should allow access to Jail Ogaden and all other detention centers throughout the country to independent Ethiopian and international monitors, including human rights and humanitarian organizations, members of the diplomatic community, African Union human rights mechanisms, and UN mechanisms such as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Prime Minister Abiy should also take immediate steps to substantially reform the Liyu police and hold senior members of the Liyu police and Somali Region government to account for serious human rights violations, including torture in Jail Ogaden.
Published on HRW on July 4, 2018
The full report is available here.
By Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria
One evening in the early days of Syria’s uprising, Mohsen al-Masri’s band of activists slipped through the Damascus streets and waited for the coast to clear. Then they crouched, opened their bags and let out a stream of color.
Thousands of ping-pong balls, painted green, pink, blue and yellow, bounced past policemen, who scrambled to stop them. Residents would find balls tucked in nooks and crannies for months. Each was marked with a single word: “Freedom.”
The punishment for Masri’s acts of peaceful protest would begin a journey into hell, unusual not because of what he saw, but because he survived.
In a series of interviews, he described how he was tortured and interrogated over a two-year period in four detention facilities before arriving in a hospital at the heart of a nationwide system of brutality.
The hospital, known as 601, is not the only site of torture in Syria. But after it was seen in a cache of photographs showing thousands of skeletal corpses, it became one of the most notorious.
Inside the facility, about a half-mile from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s palace, sick prisoners are tortured as they lie shackled to beds crammed with dying men, according to Masri and former detainees and military personnel who worked there. Corpses have been piled in bathrooms, outhouses and anywhere else they will fit, then meticulously documented and trucked away for mass burial.
In interviews across Lebanon, Turkey and Europe, more than a dozen survivors and army defectors described horrors in Syrian military hospitals across the country for which war crimes lawyers say they have struggled to find a modern parallel.
The former detainees come from all walks of life. Elite, working-class, leftist and Islamist, their only connection to one another was involvement in Syria’s 2011 uprising. Some were its instigators. Others said they had simply commented on the Facebook statuses of friends who supported protests.
Investigators say that testimony and documentation from Syria’s military hospitals offer some of the most concrete evidence to date of crimes against humanity that could one day see senior government figures tried in court.
“We were swept into a system that was ready for us. Even the hospitals were slaughterhouses,” Masri said in an interview last month.
Medicine has been used as a weapon of war since the earliest days of the uprising, when pro-government doctors performed amputations on protesters for minor injuries.
Military hospitals across Syria have long set aside wards for prisoners. But since 2011, these have been packed with men left starving and broken by the conditions they have already endured.
More than 100,000 people have been arrested or forcibly disappeared in Syria since the country’s revolt began, according to a list compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group. During that time, international aid groups have gotten access to only a handful of prisons with the government’s permission, none of which the detainees interviewed by The Washington Post spent time in.
Masri’s ordeal began in the spring of 2012 when he was arrested on his way to a conference in Turkey. Repeatedly tortured as he was transferred from jail to jail, he arrived at Sednaya, one of the most feared.
In a report published in February, Amnesty International said torture and forced starvation are systematic at the prison. But Masri said that prisoners learned to stay silent when guards asked who needed to go to the hospital.
“It didn’t matter what they did to us; we had to pretend we were fine. People rarely came back from those trips,” he said.
After months of starvation, Masri’s name was added to the weekly transfer list. As darkness fell on an evening in May 2012, he was chained to another man and taken to trucks outside. Attaching a number to Masri’s body, a guard told him to forget his name. Then he was blindfolded.
Everyone gets the “welcome” party, Masri said — a savage beating involving guards and medical staffers wearing white coats over military uniforms. In Hospital 601, the weakest man was pushed to the floor and brutalized first. In the nearby Tishreen Military Hospital, a former technician at the facility, Mohammed al-Hammoud, said he had seen prisoners dragged down steps by the hair.
“Everything was about control,” said Somar Mustafa, a physics student from Damascus who was sent to Hospital 601 at the end of 2012. Inside, he saw detainees chained to their beds and packed so tightly that they sat with their knees jutting into their rib cages.
Bathroom breaks were so rare that prisoners would defecate where they sat, remaining in the same spot for days. “We were blindfolded with that smell all around us. You can’t shake the memory of it, even when you leave,” Mustafa said.
At least five branches of the Syrian security forces have operated wards inside Hospital 601 since 2011, according to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, a body set up to monitor the conflict. “Detainees, including children, have been beaten, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to torture that exploits preexisting injuries,” it said in a 2013 report. The commission concluded that many patients had been tortured to death inside the facility.
The Harasta Military Hospital, also in Damascus, moved its ward from the first floor to the seventh to prevent detainees from escaping, a defector said. “It was the only floor without an elevator, and we knew they couldn’t jump out the window.”
Investigators say the abuses could become central pillars in any eventual case for prosecution of the hospitals’ doctors, as well as senior figures in the Syrian government.
In 601, Masri and Mustafa said, they saw high-ranking officers from the security branches accompanying doctors on their rounds. Sometimes the teams would pause by a prisoner to discuss his treatment. Other times the men would beat him.
The doctors were helped by service staffers in blue uniforms, many of them former supporters of the revolt who had been co-
opted by their jailers. “Our best men had been broken by torture. If they didn’t beat us, they risked a worse fate themselves,” Masri said.
The guards went by nicknames to avoid identification. Four survivors said the most famous was known as Azrael, or the Angel of Death. They described him as a thickset man from Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia who carried a stick laced with razor blades. They said he selected prisoners, most of them deathly ill, for a fate he called “justice.” The detainees called it execution.
Masri recalled Azrael taking a lighter to a plastic bag and melting it drop by drop onto a prisoner’s face until he died, apparently of a heart attack. Other prisoners said he used an iron rod to smash their bedmates’ skulls.
Many died where they lay, slumped against their bedmates until morning came. For Mustafa in the winter of 2012, that meant sharing a bed until sunrise the next day with three corpses.
As the uprising outside morphed into a war, former prisoners say, their interrogators became obsessed with the notion of accomplices, torturing prisoners to extract the names of new suspects to arrest.
Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up.
“It’s impossible to interrogate, torture and kill tens of thousands of detainees without a system in place,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Before the revolution, the regime was not generating thousands of dead bodies. Then all of a sudden it was. So what did you do with them?”
A December 2012 order signed by the head of Syria’s military intelligence department instructed every security branch to send their dead to a military hospital’s morgue. The document, obtained by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a Europe-based investigative unit, said that each body should be examined and logged.
A trove of these photographs was published around the world in 2014, after being smuggled out of Syria by a military police defector known only by his code-name, Caesar. Most were taken inside Hospital 601. Skeletal bodies of children as young as 11 bore signs of torture, with eyes gouged out and limbs drilled through and burned. Following Syrian government protocol, Caesar had methodically documented the deaths of some 11,000 people.
“You have to realize that these were just the photographs taken by a single man during a single period, and even then, they were only a fraction of what he’d actually recorded,” said Nadim Houry, who examined the photographs for Human Rights Watch.
Assad recently described the images as “fake news,” suggesting they had been doctored to suit the aims of human rights groups.
But defectors describe hauling numbered bodies into transparent bags in Hospital 601 and nearby military hospitals in Tishreen and Harasta. Investigators from the United Nations and private law firms have collected similar testimony from the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Daraa.
By late 2012, the system had buckled, and the December order berated individual military departments for failing to register their dead on time.
Those who survive are funneled back to nearby jails, Masri said. Others, like Mustafa, are released to a Damascus court packed with prisoners and dismissed from custody on the spot, after a judge acknowledges that they had been forced to make false confessions under torture. The young man said he remembers falling into the arms of his sobbing parents.
Masri’s discharge from 601 sent him back to Sednaya. Another year of torture followed, with nights spent packed next to other men in the darkness. He felt forgotten.
In the winter of 2014, he dreamed he was taking a hot shower, its stream stripping back two years of dirt and leaving him clean. He woke to find a guard in his cell. “He told me it was time to go,” Masri said. “I cannot describe that feeling. It was too much, too big. Indescribable.”
Back home in Damascus, he said, he remembers closing the bathroom door to stand alone for a moment, shutting his eyes to finally feel at peace. When he opened them, he saw a sheet-white, rawboned man staring back from the mirror.
“I started screaming,” Masri said. He did not recognize himself.
Published on the Washington Post's website on April 2, 2017.
A Spanish court has opened the first criminal case abroad over alleged torture instigated by Syrian officials during the country's civil war. It will focus on key political and security figures of the Assad regime.
Spanish authorities are due to investigate nine Syrian officials over claims of torture and concerning the execution of a Syrian man four years ago, in what is the first criminal case against Syrian security forces accepted by a foreign court.
The case was brought by the deceased man's sister, a Spanish woman of Syrian origin, who says her brother disappeared after being illegally detained in 2013 in Damascus.
She learned of his death after finding a picture of his body in a trove of some 50,000 photographs smuggled out of Damascus by a forensic photographer who fled Syria.
One image of Alhaj Hamdo "shows clear signs of torture," according to the charge sheet against the accused - who include Syria's vice president, intelligence chief and air force intelligence chief.
Investigating magistrate Eloy Valesco ruled Spain did have the jurisdiction to launch the probe. Spanish law allows the prosecution of serious crimes in other countries if there is a Spanish victim - which Velasco said the deceased man's sister, Amal Hag Hamdo Anfalis, could be considered as being.
Velasco has called on Anfalis and the forensic photographer to testify in court in April. He said the alleged crimes could constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and forced disappearance.
At least 320,000 people have died since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Activists have tried to use European domestic courts to pursue justice for war crimes, given UN Security Council member Russia blocks the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Other cases have been filed in Germany and France, but have not yet been accepted by the courts, said lawyer Toby Cadman, who represents a London firm helping Anfalis.
This article was published on DW's website on March 28, 2017.