“So what do you think is your offense?” my interrogator signed off with this intriguing question after he made me recount my works as an activist and progressive blogger. Soon after, when my captors permitted me to be reunited with my blogger friends, who are now described as ‘associates’ in the lexicon of inmates we have realized that we were all asked this same question “So what do you think is your offense?” This question is intriguing because it has a comprehensive and totalizing power to describe the entire interrogation process. It is intriguing because it sheds light into our innocence or our into our refusal to acknowledge what our captors suspected us of violating. Yes, our captors probed us severely but they all ended with the same question “So what do you think is your offense?” The whole point of the investigation was not to proof or to disproof our offenses but it was to make us plead guilty. With that, our brief two years of operation as Zone9ers which was a perplexity for a lot of people has got answers. Observers perplexed why Ethiopian government tolerated Zone9ers for so long. Given the sensitive nature of Ethiopia’s government to freedom of expression the annoying perplexity of these people is understandable. As the curiosity of these perplexed people come to end; we got apprehended, investigated and blame is being laid up on us for committing acts of ‘crime’ by being a ‘member’ and ‘accepting missions’ of Ginbot7/May 15 and OLF as well. Next in a row is ‘due processes’ in the prosecution, but I believe there are issues that necessitate this piece. So I decided to write this. How did our incarceration & investigation go? Are we really a member of Ginbot7/May15? If not why have they arrested us? Will they release us soon?
No matter what, the bounds exist among people if they write about Ethiopia’s s political reality they will have to survive with a peril of incarceration as long as they live in the country. I believe that is why Prof. Mesfin poignantly described Ethiopians as those who have gone through imprisonment, those who are now in prison and those who await imprisonment. In his book, Prof. Mesfin cited these three layers of Ethiopian captives to his unidentified conversant, credit to him, but we believe everyone who has to survive with a dread to exercise their freedom of expression live in outer ring of the prison, the Nation Itself, that is why we call our blog Zone9. Merely we were two weeks into our nascent blogging when they made our collective blog inaccessible in Ethiopia in 2012. We gave it a trial until the end but we knew that the fate of our blocked blogs could be our own. We know that we could end up being arrested. In the days and weeks leading up to our incarceration in April 2014, government security agents have been threatening us about our imminent arrest but it is only human to get shaken when it happened. The arrest besieged six obtainable members of the blogging collective and our three journalist allies. Here; I would like to point out that the incarceration of our three journalist allies was a bit of shock at least for us; but later it became noticeable that we were only used as a pretext and their arrest is part of a grand arrangement. The highly coordinated manner of our seizures on its own speaks volumes about government’s pre-calculated grand arrangement. With the exception of one of the journalist (Asmamaw) we were all arrested on Friday the 25th of April on or about 11:00 pm; from our respective locations. Asmamaw was arrested the next morning. By the time we were seized and taken to the detention center the search ‘warrant’ that authorized the law enforcement personnel was well over its time limit at least according to Ethiopian law. In fact, the unlawful intrusion of our rights starts right here. Without delay, we become victims of various unlawful courses of actions.
The very idea of setting a foot in the compound of the ill-famed Maeklawi detention center gives a cold shiver to anyone. But my sheer optimistic trust that the brutal and inhuman treatment of people as Ethiopia’s distant memory saved me from trembling while I was escorted into the compound. So were my friends, I suppose. What is more; we had nothing to be scared of because; we are neither undercover agents nor members of armed forces; we are just writers. However, as soon as I arrived at Maeklawi detainees informed me that I am in one of the notorious section of the detention center called ‘Siberia’. In just less than a week I felt I was living right in the middle of the account of Human Rights Watch report of the 2013 titled- They Want a Confession.
The Standard Maeklawi Interrogation
The standard Maeklawi interrogation methods are more of dominance and submission, rather than confidence and creativity. Instead of extracting information from ‘suspects’ the police officers usually fool around; they spend too much time in I know it all kind of game. If this does not succeed in extracting information, they force confessions by punching, beatings, extended physical exercise and flogging. I concluded that this is the standard interrogation routine in Maeklawi since I have endured it with five different police officers. Other detainees have informed me that they have gone through the same procedure. In fact I had an opportunity to converse with detainees who have passed through even wicked procedures that intrude detainees’ privacies. Some detainees got stripped off their clothes and asked to perform stand up-sit dawn. Particularly, I was able to meet with people who suffered from medieval type of torture in an anonymous detention center before they were brought to their pre-trial detention center at Maeklawi. These detainees suffer from diabolical barbarity such as forcible extraction of their nails from their fingers, flogging and hooding; among these are students from Haromaya University. What is nauseating is the extracted information from detainees in anonymous detention center is usually brought to their pre-trial detention center for the purpose of verification. Detainees never know where they were taken for this brutal investigation; because they are hooded. The anonymous detention centers are like black holes. Ethiopian prisoners’ anguish which appeared to be so distant in memory is not that far after all.
Finally, we were made to plead guilty, we confessed under duress. We could not bear with the ceaseless brutal and psychologically degrading pressure. We could not carry on surviving the hellhole of Maeklawi. We end up recounting what our detectives would like better to listen. To the delight of our detectives we have added as many self-incriminating phrases as possible. But phrases such as ‘yes we wanted to incite violence’ never pleased them. Subsequently they have re-written our confessions so that it will fit their frame. Some of us tried to explain; others we had to endure beatings but at last we all succumbed to the pressure and signed the carefully scripted confession pages with the exception of Abel, he refused to sign the rewritten confession pages. He has survived the pain but even his confession pages are complete mendacities let alone ours.
Now we are a living witnesses that torture is part of Maeklawi’s ceremony that reveals the ‘truth’ of a crime. I thought police interrogations were so complex involving high end skills, knowledge and psychological tactics to establish facts. Thanks to our time at Maeklawi I have realized that police interrogations in Maeklawi are not that complex. In fact they are simple. They are like machines that produce guilt in the detainees. In Maeklawi, the driving principle of police interrogations is ‘you are guilty unless proven otherwise’. Your pleas for innocence or explanation for that matter fell on deaf ears; detectives will cook a crime for you; I call this Maeklawi-sque interrogations.
My experience, especially our own case; convinced me stronger than ever that Maeklawi should go through a complete reform. One can simply observe that there is a significant economy of power invested in Maeklawi. The investigation is not principled; detectives ingratiate the power wielders. I think they are recruited based on their willingness to carry out the desires of the power wielders, not to uphold the rule of law. I think the staffing of employees should be merit based. These kinds of law enforcement employees should be knowledgeable if they are not they might overlook insightful information when they deal with real criminals and this might jeopardized the safety & security of the country.
An Apple & Orange
The evident part of each of our confession pages which forced us plead guilty were our online campaigns, our plans, the articles we wrote, the trainings we partake, the training manuals, the skills we attempted to impart. I had to admit that we all expected that their plan was to indict us with agitating the public to strife. We thought the ceiling for our ‘crime’ is accusing us of violating article 257/8 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But eureka, when they formally charge us we have realized that we are charged with Ethiopian terrorism law, particularly with violation of its Article 4 which can result in severe punishment of 15 years to life imprisonment. Honestly, speaking this makes my face beam with smile.
The terrorism charge is smirking because the evidences brought to support the charge are merely our writings, the press releases we wrote during our online campaigns and different training manuals. Other than these documents, there are three ‘documents’ which purportedly proof our connections with Ginbot 7 and OLF. The first one is Ginbot7’s newsletter from September 2009. This newsletter was located in Natnael’s email. Here, it is important to note that Ethiopia’s anti-terror proclamation was not passed into law and Ginbot7 was not yet labeled as a terrorist organization when Natty received the newsletter. The second document was, the one located in the house of Soliyana’s mom during the search and seizures. The alleged document is the guiding document to draft members of Ginbot7 popular force. Apparently, Soli’s mom refused to acknowledge this document insisting it was inserted by the security agents themselves in their house rather than located. In any way this should not be a big deal especially considering Soli’s stance on armed struggle. We all know that Soli does not support regime change by means of armed struggle. Before my detention last time I check her Twitter bio has an adage “no for war”. The third document is the political program of OLF which was located in the personal computer of Mahlet. In fact, Mahlet has had many political programs of other Oromo political parties but they were not presented as evidence. I don’t want to engage in ping pong kind of argument that yields nonentity. Apparently, for our loved ones if not our leaders it is clear that possessing these documents does confirm neither allegiance nor working relationship with both Ginbot7 & OLF. Our activities and the charges we received are like an apple & orange.
The preposterous of all allegations is the one which blames us of receiving $2400 money using Natnael as our contact person. This money was a remittance transferred from Article 19 to encourage Reyoot, an imprisoned journalist and of course support her family. During our interrogation we have explained this fact in great detail to the police officers. Adjacent to our claim attached was the receipt to proof the transfer was made by Article 19. But in the charge sheet they tried to get us perceived wrongly and they have attempted to show that we have received the money from the ‘terrorist’ organizations. I imagine they know our innocence; but I think either they maliciously want us suffer or they want to take their time until we prove our innocence.
Is bad excuse better than none? Not exactly
Some conundrums are simply explained in old adages like bad excuse is better than none but I think our story can be best explained in an Ethiopian folk story of a hyena and a donkey. The story goes like this. Once upon a time a donkey and a hyena were drinking from the same stream of water. The belligerent hyena whined to the donkey that she is making his water filthy despite he is drinking up in the stream; but the donkey told to the hyena to stop looking for a reason to prey on her. People say a bad excuse is better than none but not in our case! Our story is much more analogous to the story of the hyena and the donkey than to the old adage.
They arrested us without knowing anything other than our names. We genuinely believed that if they know what we have been doing they might understand us. With that good will we have even passed some of our writings to them through one of their undercover agent who has been following us before our detention but I don’t think they have read the anthology of our writings. Indeed our detectives were craving to plead us guilty in a very desperate manner. But why would they do that? They might want us to stay away from Ethiopian social media sphere until the upcoming Ethiopian national election in May 2015. Hitherto, we have the first-hand experience of favoritism and partiality towards the ruling party. What is left is to try out to defend ourselves using the judicial system. For now let me ponder about our future; will they ‘release’ us? I will not dwell on the legal possibilities of our ‘acquitance’ but I will only look into our hypothetical chances. Even though the Ethiopian Federal Police which is an apparatus of the government arrested us without having probable cause; they still thought they would find some sort of transgression. As a matter of fact they could not find anything that would get us accused even in the wildest interpretation of the already broad anti-terrorism proclamation. However; this has not prevented them from using it. The verbosity and trivialities of the charges on its own is an apparent suggestion for the sham nature of their accusations. But I do not think we will get ‘exonerated’ any time soon. Why because;
1. EPRDF is bullheaded. They are stubborn in annoying way. If they think the detainees have generated a lot of support and are critical of their governance. They don’t want to release their captives without dehumanizing them. EPRDF is foolishly childish. Note; I am not saying the global support we received is not helping us. Your support is our daily bread. It is warming us like sunshine. I am sure the day shall come on which we say thank you for your support.
2. They don’t want take a risk. Even though they have seen our innocence regarding their fear of inciting violence after the upcoming election; they did not want to take a risk. In weeks leading up to our arrest they have been accusing us of planning color revolution following the national election using their media.
3. They want us suffer. They want us spend our time jail because we are strong critics of their policies.
4. They do not have any sense of decency that prevent them to hand dawn judgment on innocent people.
Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala