Picture: 123RF/pyzata
Picture: 123RF/pyzata

Addis Ababa — Prisoners in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region have been arbitrarily detained and tortured for years, Human Rights Watch said, as it urged the Horn of Africa nation’s new prime minister to order an investigation.

The allegations of abuse at the prison known as Jail Ogaden, which holds thousands of inmates mainly accused of links to a banned secessionist group, come after premier Abiy Ahmed told parliament in June that the country’s use of torture is unconstitutional. New York-based Human Rights Watch cited interviews with 70 former prisoners conducted between 2011 and 2018 in its report published on Thursday.

The head of the facility is under the command of the regional prison commissioner, who in turn reports to the Somali region’s head of security. That official also heads a special police force known as the Liyu and reports to the region’s president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopia, Africa’s most populous nation after Nigeria, is a federal state designed to give autonomy to ethnic groups. Regional spokesperson Idris Ismael Abdi and federal government information minister Ahmed Shide didn’t immediately respond to two calls and two text messages seeking comment on Human Rights Watch’s allegations.

Abuse investigations

Fana Broadcasting Corporation, which is controlled by the ruling party, reported on Wednesday that the heads of unspecified detention centres had been fired for failing to respect prisoners’ rights. Investigations into the abuses will be conducted and those responsible will face justice, attorney-general Berhanu Tsegaye was quoted as saying.

Abiy, who came to power in April, has enacted sweeping changes as he seeks to quell simmering political dissent and retain Ethiopia’s momentum as the continent’s fastest-growing economy. Thousands of detainees have been freed in 2018 and he has begun peace overtures toward long-time foe Eritrea. In June, he told parliament that mistakes had been made since the ruling coalition took power in 1991.

"Our constitution doesn’t allow it, but we have been torturing, causing bodily damage and even putting inmates in dark prison cells," he said. "These were terrorist acts committed by us, and using force just to stay in power is a terrorist act too."

Ethiopia’s Somali region, which borders Somalia, is estimated to hold 2.26-trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, which authorities have plans to pump and export. Most of the prisoners at Jail Ogaden are accused of being affiliated with the banned Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has fought an insurgency since 1984, but the majority never face charges or stand trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Abiy’s cabinet submitted a resolution last week to legislators that, if ratified, would rescind the designation of ONLF and some others groups as terrorist organisations. Authorities also released an ONLF leader deported by Somalia to Ethiopia in 2017.