By Stephanie McCrummen
August 21, 2007 (NAIROBI) — Three Ethiopian journalists who had been held for almost two years in an Addis Ababa prison said that days after being cleared of all charges and released this spring, they each received death threats from government security agents.
In lengthy interviews here in the Kenyan capital, the journalists also described being subjected to psychological torture during their confinement with other political prisoners in a stifling cell on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital. They said that after their release they had had high hopes of starting a new life, but government agents almost immediately began hounding them, harassing them with phone calls and otherwise terrorizing them into fleeing their country for Kenya.
“They told me, ‘We will kill you if you do not disappear,’ ” said one of the newspaper journalists, all of whom spoke anonymously on the advice of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “I was sure I would be killed if I stayed.”
A spokesman for the Ethiopian government declined to comment on the allegations.
The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has often dealt brutally with people deemed threatening to his fragile ruling coalition. In the capital, people suspected of supporting opposition groups routinely disappear from their neighborhoods, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a pro-democracy group based in Addis Ababa.
Elsewhere, the government is conducting brutal campaigns against separatist rebels and opposition movements in the Ogaden and Oromia regions, where the council and reporters have documented widespread extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions and torture.
The journalists were among thousands of people, including the country’s top opposition leaders, who were arrested in the capital during protests following Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, in which the opposition made significant gains.
Some Ethiopians had held out hope that the release in April of the journalists and others — and especially the subsequent pardon and release of the country’s top opposition leaders last month — marked a turning point for the Ethiopian government.
The U.S. State Department, which considers Ethiopia a key ally in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa, had praised the prisoners’ release as a “breakthrough.”
“We commend the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for its statesmanship in resolving this issue,” the department said in a statement. “The United States calls on all parties to use this breakthrough as the basis to advance dialogue on peace and democratic progress.”
The journalists said their release had seemed miraculous, coming after nearly two years of confinement in the dingy Kaliti prison, where conditions are supposed to be superior to other jails around Ethiopia.
They said they were held in a room riddled with bullet holes and crowded with about 400 other inmates, many suffering from tuberculosis and other illnesses. The room had one toilet.
The journalists estimated that perhaps 85 percent of the inmates were political prisoners from Oromia.
“There was a 90-year-old man and an 86-year-old man,” said one journalist. “One had been there for 12 years, the other for eight years, and they were still waiting for a trial. The 86-year-old had scars all over his body from being beaten. If you heard their story, you would not think you are living in the 21st century.”
One of the journalists said he was beaten on the head and face with an iron rod when he was first arrested in 2005. Otherwise, the journalists said, they were not tortured, a fact they attribute to the international attention to their case.
But other inmates were routinely tortured, they said. “They would pour water on their back and beat them in front of us,” said one of the journalists. “Every morning, we would hear people screaming and begging for their own death. When we saw them tortured, we were tortured.”
When the journalists were found not guilty and released, they said, they looked forward to resuming some kind of normal life, though the government had shut down their newspapers.
But within two weeks, they were being hounded by government agents, in some cases by men they recognized as those who arrested them in 2005.
One of the journalists said he was constantly followed around the city — to Internet cafes, to his home and once to a bar, where a security agent confronted him.
“He said, ‘If you make a mistake again, we will not put you in prison. We will kill you,’ ” he said, adding that the man put his fingers into the shape of a gun and imitated a shot to the head.
Last month, the men decided independently of one another to leave Ethiopia, having heard that the prosecutor had appealed their acquittal.
They recounted putting on disguises — long robes, big hats — and smuggling themselves by truck and taxi, first to the Kenyan border and finally to Nairobi, where they are under U.N. protection.
They live now in hiding, having heard an unconfirmed report that Ethiopian security forces have come to Nairobi.
“My mind cannot rest,” said one of three men. “I do not feel safe. I always think of my family, that they may inflict some harm on them to harm me.”
The treatment of the released prisoners highlights a challenge for the State Department: reconciling its counterterrorism objectives with its stated goals of promoting democracy and human rights abroad.
The United States backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia last year to oust an Islamic movement that had taken hold there, and it cooperated closely with Ethiopia in conducting three airstrikes against Islamic fighters.
A bill critical of Ethiopia’s human rights record is currently stalled in Congress because House leaders have said they feel the Ethiopian government should be given time to arrange for the release of other political prisoners still in jail, a strategy that the journalists consider doomed.
“You hear all this condemnation of Mugabe,” said one, referring to Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. “Meles is much worse. He is killing freely. America should change this partnership with Ethiopia on terrorism. It is allowing the Ethiopian government to kill democracy.”