Birtu-Can! Yes, We Can!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / March 2, 2009

Bertukan Mideksa
"The re-arrest of Birtukan Midekssa magnifies the violation of the rule of law prevailing in our country."UDJ
Free Birtukan and All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia!

Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia throughout the world are taking to the streets today to protest human rights violations by the ruling regime, and to demand the release of all political prisoners. The preeminent political prisoner and the undisputed symbol of democratic resistance in Ethiopia today is Birtukan Mideksa, chairperson of Andenet party (Unity for Democracy and Justice party). Over two months ago, Birtukan was strong-armed, manhandled and whisked away to the infamous Kaliti Prison by armed thugs. Her crime (don’t laugh), “Pardon Denying.” Her “life sentence” by a kangaroo court was reinstated because she allegedly told an Ethiopian audience in Sweden that she and other political prisoners were released in July 2007 following negotiations with the ruling regime in Ethiopia. In her response to a regime ultimatum to retract the alleged pardon denial, she issued a clear public statement acknowledging receipt of a pardon: “As one of the prisoners I had indeed signed the [pardon] document, a fact which I have never denied. I have asked forgiveness through the elders by signing on the document dated June 18, 2006. This is a fact that I cannot change even if I want to.”

Back in July, 2007, all of the “king’s men” had corroborated the truth of Birtukan’s statements1. Prof. Issac Ephrem, head of the elders negotiation group, said Birtukan and the other Kinijit political prisoners were released as a result of skilled shuttle diplomacy by his group: “Before the courts were at all involved, the government did come to a position where they would be willing to withdraw the case. There would be no court process…. No document is acceptable to both sides. We had to shuttle back and forth to look at the document and see what words are acceptable to the government and what words are acceptable to the detainees.” Dr. Haileselassie Belay, a member of the elders group confirmed: “The wording [for the negotiated release document] was very, very difficult because what the detainees wanted the government did not want. This was a very big problem.” The ruling regime’s diplomatic representative in the U.S., Samuel Assefa, reaffirmed the negotiated release: “I am hopeful that my country now can put this issue behind us… This decision was the result of an independent process conducted in accordance with the democratic Constitution and laws of Ethiopia. It was carried out by Ethiopians, through our own national institutions, and without the need for international intervention.”

Mistreatment of (Political) Prisoners and the “Appalling Conditions Inside Ethiopian Prisons”

The prisons maintained by the ruling regime in Ethiopia are among the most inhuman, primitive and barbaric in the world. In an official report commissioned by the ruling regime on riot control entitled, “Modernizing Internal Security in Ethiopia” (July, 2008), retired British colonel Michael Dewars, vividly described the “appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons”2. After Addis Ababa police authorities took Col. Dewars to visit one of their best detention facilities in the capital city, he recounted:

I asked to go into the compound where the prisoners are kept. This consisted of a long yard with a shed to one side which provided some sort of shelter. The compound had a wall around it and a watchtower for an armed sentry overlooking it. Inside must have been 70 – 80 inmates, all in a filthy state. There was insufficient room for all these people to lie down on a mat at once. There was no lighting. The place stank of faeces and urine. There appeared to be no water or sanitation facilities within the compound. There was a small hut in an adjacent compound for women prisoners but there had been no attempt by anybody to improve the circumstances of the place. The prisoners were mostly on remand for minor crimes, in particular theft. Some had been there for months. There was one young boy among the prisoners, who appeared to me to be 12 or 13 years of age, who was weeping and pleading to speak to me so I asked him how old he was. He said 13. He certainly could not possibly have been older than 15. When I asked what the minimum age for holding prisoners in this facility was, one policeman said 18, another 15. In any event, he stayed there.

Col. Dewars concluded, “Detention conditions of prisoners are a disgrace and make the Federal Police vulnerable to the Human Rights lobby.” He “recommended that the Government should investigate this situation with the intention of improving the current appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, which must brutalise prisoners and their goalers equally. It is recommended that senior Ethiopian Ministers and Police Officers visit the prison that I visited.”

Just last week, the 2008 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (February 25, 2009) stated3:

The country has three federal prisons, 117 regional prisons, and many unofficial prisons. Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening. Severe overcrowding was a problem. In September 2007 it was reported that there were 52,000 persons in prison. Earlier in the year, prison populations decreased by 10,000 due to pardons but reportedly again increased due to increases in ethnic conflict and economic crimes. Prisoners often had less than 22 square feet of sleeping space in a room that could contain up to 200 persons, and sleeping in rotations was not uncommon in regional prisons. The daily meal budget was approximately 5 birr (50 cents) per prisoner. Many prisoners supplemented this with daily food deliveries from family members or by purchasing food from local vendors. Prison conditions were unsanitary and there was no budget for prison maintenance. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional prisons.

In detention centers, police often physically abused detainees. Authorities generally permitted visitors but sometimes arbitrarily denied them access to detainees. In some cases, family visits to political prisoners were restricted to a few per year.

While statistics were unavailable, there were some deaths in prison due to illness and poor health care. Prison officials were not forthcoming with reports of such deaths. Several pardoned political prisoners had serious health problems in detention but received little treatment at the time.

Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults if they could not be accommodated at the juvenile remand home. Men and women prisoners were largely, but not always, segregated.

During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited regional prisons only. The government continued to prevent ICRC representatives from visiting police stations and federal prisons throughout the country including those where opposition, civil society, and media leaders were held.

The same State Department report further documented the use of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of political prisoners:

Although the constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials tortured, beat, or mistreated detainees. Opposition political party leaders reported frequent and systematic abuse and intimidation of their supporters by police and regional militias, particularly in the months leading up to the local and by-elections held during the year. In Makelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, police investigators reportedly commonly used physical abuse to extract confessions.

In November 2008, Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment made a special point of the barbaric use of torture in Ethiopian prisons as a major cause of physical disabilities: “Of course, torture was also a major cause of creating disabilities. Particularly destructive was the ‘Ethiopian hanging style’ where prisoners were bound like a wheel and hung up, which engendered long-lasting consequences.”4

The Inquiry Commission established by the ruling regime to investigate the post-2005 election massacres by regime security forces documented that between June and November 2005, over 30,000 persons had been held incommunicado (without the means or right of communicating with others) in detention centers located throughout the country. The 2007 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cited other estimates of political prisoners in Ethiopia exceeding 50,000 civilians. Today, there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia who are held in detention without trial, including Birtukan Mideksa, and in violation of their basic right to due process under local and international law.

The Continuing Abuse of Birtukan Mideksa as a Political Prisoner

The evidence on Birtukan’s prison condition indicates that she has been held in solitary confinement following her roadside abduction by armed thugs. Birtukan recently told her mother, (the only person other than her 4 year old daughter allowed visitation), that “the ill-treatment in prison is getting beyond what she could bear as a human being”. Birtukan is denied access to her legal counsel. She is subjected to severe physical and psychological pressure. She is not allowed to have books or other reading material, or access to a radio. The regime has blocked the International Red Cross and other international human rights organizations from visiting Birtukan.

International Human Rights Law and the Rights of (Political) Prisoners

There is overwhelming evidence that conditions in prisons maintained by the ruling regime in Ethiopia are so deficient that they subject detainees and prisoners to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in flagrant violation of a slew of international human rights conventions, declarations and instruments. The established facts (as documented not only through the efforts of dissidents, ex-political prisoners and international human rights organizations, but also through regime-commissioned expert analyses and reports) are incontrovertible: The ruling regime’s prisons in Ethiopia are overcrowded and unsanitary. The vast majority of Ethiopian prisoners have little or no access to clean drinking or bathing water. As Col. Dewars documented, even the best prisons in the capital city “stank of faeces and urine. There appeared to be no water or sanitation facilities within the compound.” The prisons are vermin-infested and filthy and serve as breeding grounds for infectious diseases, and diseases of the circulatory and respiratory systems. Mental illness among prisoners is one of the least appreciated problems in the prisons. Birtukan Mideksa and thousands of other political prisoners are frequently singled out for systematic psychological intimidation and physical abuse due to their status as documented in the recent U.S. state Department report.

International law protects all prisoners, and particularly political prisoners, from inhumane and barbaric treatment. Prisoners are guaranteed basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 5 of the UDHR (incorporated by express reference in Art. 13 (2) of the “Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”) prescribes that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 10 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (ratified by Ethiopia on June 11, 1993 and incorporated by express reference in Art. 13 (2) of the “Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”) provides that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (acceded to by Ethiopia on April 13, 1994) mandates that signatories “shall undertake to prevent . . . acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment . . . .” Article 5 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified by Ethiopia on June 15, 1998) prohibits, “all forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment.”

The foregoing principles have been reaffirmed by the UN Human Rights Committee on numerous occasions. The U.N. has adopted a number of legal instruments to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners, including the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRTP). These instruments establish basic rights for prisoners, which include among others, contact with the outside world, “regular visits of family members” and communication “reputable friends at regular intervals”, sanitary conditions to “enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner”, provision of “food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength and drinking water”, medical and general health care, and “completely” prohibits “corporal punishment, punishment by placing in a dark cell, and all cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments for disciplinary offences.” The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners provide that “all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.” The U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment provide that “no person under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (“The Beijing Rules”), which encompass the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Ethiopia on July 22, 1987) require that juvenile detainees “be kept separate from adults and shall be detained in a separate institution”.

The ruling regime in Ethiopia has incorporated many of the provisions of the most important human rights treaties in its “constitution” and other “laws”. Article 13 (2) of the “Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” states: “The fundamental rights and freedoms specified in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner conforming to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants on Human Rights and international instruments adopted by Ethiopia.” This article incorporates international law and conventions prohibiting abusive treatment of detainees and prisoners expressly and by implication. Regardless of Ethiopia’s status on any particular human rights convention or declaration, there is no question that those who have engaged and continue to engage in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of political and other prisoners are in violation of customary international law. Article 38 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides that certain treaty provisions may become binding on third parties (regardless of ratification, accession or adoption) when those provisions are part of customary international law, as Ethiopia is indeed. There are no legal excuses or defenses for the ruling regime in Ethiopia for not complying with the requirements of international law in its treatment of detainees and (political) prisoners.

Birtukan, Ethiopian Political Prisoners: You Are Not Alone!

W/o Almaz, Birtukan’s mother, recently asked the celebrated Ethiopian actor, Debebe Eshetu, to remind Diaspora Ethiopians never to give up[5]: “Keep it up! Keep it up with the help of God. I thank you for all you do [on behalf of my daughter]. May God be with you and me. May God be with the Ethiopian people.” On this day of worldwide protest against the unjust imprisonment of our heroine Birtukan, and all political prisoners in Ethiopia, let us reassure W/o Almaz we will never, never give up! Let us tell Birtukan and her fellow political prisoners that they are not alone because God is with them, and we are with them too. Let us sing to them in the lyrics of Michael Jackson:

For you are not alone,
For we are here with you,
Though we’re far apart,
You’re always in our heart,
For you are not alone……..

Birtukan, You Are Not Alone! Free Birtu-Can! Free All Ethiopian Political Prisoners!

Let’s shout joyfully at our demonstrations: “Birtu-Can! Yes, We Can!”

1 Washington Post, July 31, 2007

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at