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Ethiopia’s Refugees Unsafe in Kenya and Elsewhere

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“Wako” fled Ethiopia for Kenya in 2012, after his release from prison. He had been locked up for two years after campaigning for the Oromo People’s Congress, an opposition party that has often been targeted by the government.

In Kenya, he hoped to be safe. But six months later Ethiopian officials kidnapped him in Nairobi and brought him to Ethiopia’s notorious Ziway prison, where he was mistreated and tortured, before being released. He fled to Kenya a second time.

When I spoke to him in Kenya, he said he planned to travel overland to South Africa. He hoped for better safety there.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of harassment and threats against Ethiopian asylum seekers in Kenya and elsewhere since 2010. In a recent letter to the Kenyan police, to which they have not responded, we describe how asylum seekers were assaulted, detained, and interrogated before Ethiopian officials in Nairobi, and forced to return to Ethiopia. Many also received threatening phone calls and text messages from Kenyan and Ethiopian phone numbers.

In private, some Kenyan police told us that Ethiopian Embassy officials in Nairobi have offered them cash to arrest Ethiopians. Ethiopian refugees said Ethiopian officials tried to recruit them to inform on others, promising land, protection, money, and resettlement to the US or elsewhere.

Threats to fleeing Ethiopians are not limited to Kenya. Community leaders, social media activists, opposition politicians, and refugee protection workers have been harassed in other countries. Human Rights Watch has documented abductions of Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers from Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere.

High-profile opposition figures with foreign citizenship have also been handed to Ethiopian authorities without a legal process, including a British citizen detained in Yemen, a Norwegian citizen in South Sudan, and a Somali national handed over last month by Somalia’s government.

In Somaliland, we recently spoke to 10 asylum seekers who were forced back to Ethiopia during one of the frequent roundups of Oromo in Somaliland. Eight said they were tortured upon their return to Ethiopia. Many described harassment from Ethiopian embassy officials and indifference from the UN refugee agency.

All this creates a climate of fear and mistrust amongst Ethiopian refugees, preventing them from living normal lives, going to working or even applying for asylum.

The UN refugee agency and host countries should work harder to ensure Ethiopians fleeing torture and persecution can safely access asylum processes and be safe from the long reach of Ethiopian officials.

Canada

Canadians call for return of relative held in Ethiopia

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AL JAZEERA — A Canadian family is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to negotiate the release of a citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia saying “there will never be a better time than now to get him home”.

Canadian Bashir Makhtal, 49, has been imprisoned in Ethiopia since January 2007 on charges of “terrorism”.

Authorities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, accuse Makhtal of being a ringleader for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) – a rebel group pressing for self-rule in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region – and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Ethiopia classifies the ONLF as a “terrorist” organisation.

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, however, do not.

Makhtal, whose grandfather was a founding member of the ONLF, has always declared himself innocent, saying he was in the region to promote his clothing business.

Now, more than a decade on, the Ethiopian government’s recent release of thousands of political prisoners and peace talks with the ONLF have given Makhtal’s family further impetus in campaigning for his release.

‘There is hope’
Asiso Abdi, Makhtal’s wife, told Al Jazeera that Ethiopian authorities could be persuaded to include Bashir among those freed, if Canada applies adequate diplomatic pressure.

“If the government of Justin Trudeau is willing to get Bashir home, there will never be a better time than now,” Abdi said. “When there is a life, there is a hope.”

Canadian officials say they are exploring every possible option to bring Makhtal back to Canada.

Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, met Makhtal during a diplomatic visit to Ethiopia in April 2017.

Negotiating Makhtal’s release is a priority for the Canadian government, he told Al Jazeera.

“Our objective is to see this happen as soon as we can… At every opportunity, the discussion with Ethiopian officials regarding Mr Makhtal happens,” Alghabra said.

“[But] these conversations are not easy… The Ethiopian government see him as someone who has been convicted and is serving a sentence.”

Despite mounting diplomatic pressure, Ethiopian officials continue to deny Makhtal is a political prisoner and block his release from jail.

Metasebia Tadesse, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Qatar, told Al Jazeera recent prisoner releases were specifically intended to “create a broader political space within the country”, and will not affect Makhtal’s status.

“Bashir Makhtal is not an Ethiopian, he is imprisoned due to the terrorist crimes he committed,” Tadesse said. “One cannot mix his case with the current measures taken by the Ethiopian government.”

When questioned, Tadesse refused to provide Al Jazeera with further details regarding the nature of the “terrorist crimes”.

‘An unfair trial’
Rights group Amnesty International said Makhtal has been detained unfairly.

“Once charges were laid against Makhtal we pressed for him to be provided with a fair trial and an opportunity to mount an effective defence, such as by having full access to allegations, evidence and witnesses against him,” Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International in Canada, told Al Jazeera.

“That was not the case, nor was his appeal hearing a fair process,” Neve said.

Lorne Waldman, Makhtal’s Canada-based lawyer, told Al Jazeera that Ethiopia had subjected his client to a number of extrajudicial measures: including an illegal extradition and torture.

“Bashir’s version of events has been the same since the beginning, that he was in Somalia doing business … [and] when there was the [Ethiopian] military incursion into Somalia he, like thousands of others, fled to the Kenyan border,” Waldman said.

“He was detained at the border and taken into custody in Nairobi, and from Nairobi he was illegally spirited on a private plane to Ethiopia without any formal extradition proceedings,” he added.

“Then he was tortured and charged under the anti-terrorism provisions in Ethiopia, before being prosecuted in what people generally felt was an unfair trial, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.”

Extraordinary rendition
Amnesty said Makhtal’s transfer to Ethiopia was “tantamount to an instance of extraordinary rendition”, adding it was “very likely” he had been subjected to torture or other forms of cruel treatment in Ethiopia.

The prevalence of torture in Ethiopia – described as a “major problem” in Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report – and Makhtal being held incommunicado at the beginning of his detention support Amnesty’s concerns regarding mistreatment, Neve said.

Authorities in Ethiopia did not acknowledge they had imprisoned Makhtal until July 2007, six months after his arrival in Addis Ababa, his relatives told Al Jazeera.

Nearly 11 years later, Makhtal’s family still has little clarity about whether Ethiopia will release him.

Some 12,000km away from his prison cell in Ethiopia, Makhtal’s absence in Canada continues to be felt every day, Abdi told Al Jazeera.

“They took my husband and with him my future happiness,” she said.

“I have already missed 11 wedding anniversaries with him, 11 years of my life have gone. I’m missing a half of me deep inside the dark cell of an Ethiopian prison.”

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Ethiopia

Ethiopia releases 1,500 prisoners in eastern Somali region -statement

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NAIROBI, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Ethiopia has released more than 1,500 prisoners in its eastern Somali region, government officials said on social media, days after the government declared a state of emergency to try to tamp down unrest in Africa’s second most populous nation.

“On Wednesday, over 1,500 prisoners were released following a pardon by President Abdi Mohammed Omer,” the Somali Region’s communications bureau said on Facebook late on Wednesday, referring to the regional president.

“The inmates had been jailed on charges that include anti-peace activities,” it added, without giving details.

Ethiopia has already released more than 6,000 prisoners since January, including some high-profile journalists and opposition leaders. They were charged with a variety of offences, including terrorism.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the releases were designed to increase “political space” in Ethiopia following anti-government protests that began in 2015.

Hundreds of people were killed during two years of protests that convulsed the country’s two most populous provinces, whose ethnic Oromo and Amharic communities complain they are under-represented in the country’s corridors of power.

Friday’s declaration of a six-month-long state of emergency followed Hailemariam’s surprise resignation on Thursday. He remains in office, overseeing the region’s biggest economy, until a new prime minister is appointed.

The government previously imposed a state of emergency in October 2016, which was lifted in August 2017. During that time, curfews were in place, movement was restricted and about 29,000 people were detained. It’s unclear how many remain in prison.

(Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Ethiopia

What triggered unrest in Ethiopia? INSIDE STORY

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s surprise resignation came after sustained anti-government protests in the East African country.

While the government considers who will take his place, it has imposed a state of emergency for the next six months.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in the African continent, with 100 million people in more than 40 ethnic groups.

The two largest groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, make up around two-thirds of all Ethiopians.

Tigrayans account for just six percent of the population but they dominate politics and the security forces.

It’s a 25-year-old arrangement but one that is causing a great deal of resentment among the other groups.

So, what’s next for Ethiopia?

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