Liberty is a basic human right guaranteed to all people, but like most rights, it has limits. When a person commits a crime, this liberty is stripped from them for a period of time and they become prisoners. However, another instance of stripping of liberty is the imprisonment of people for political reasons. This type of arbitrary imprisonment usually occurs when a person or group is found to have political views that are in opposition to those of the ruling party of the country in which they live. Needless to say, political imprisonment occurs most highly in countries that are known for their poor observances of basic human rights. The severity of their imprisonment obviously depends on how much of a threat they are perceived to be, and also which country they have been imprisoned in.
Ethiopia is a country in which none of these political prisoners are handled lightly, and all face severe prison conditions despite the core international human rights policies. The constitution states that it protects the rights of all detained people, prohibits any cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and protects the respect of human dignity of prisoners. It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A combined reading of the two documents indicates that even when a person has been deprived of liberty, they should nevertheless not be subjected to inhumane treatment and torture. The respect for dignity that is given to free people should be also be given to detainees. The obligation to treat detainees with humanity and respect for their dignity should not be dependent on the availability of resources – and it should be done without any discrimination.
The way political prisoners are being treated is much worse than just substandard; it is torture.
On the surface, Ethiopia appears to have conformed to the international standards of human rights observations. However, upon closer inspection, one quickly finds out how thin the pretense really is. Based on the constitution, a proclamation and regulation were enacted. The regulation has three basic principles: The principle of non-discrimination, respect for human dignity and ensuring the educative and rehabilitative nature of penalties. The principle of respect for human dignity, however, has been limited by adding the phrase “unless restricted by the penalties imposed on them.” This restriction on human dignity is in contravention of the constitution which states that “everyone has the right to respect for his human dignity, reputation and honour.” The constitution does not put any limitation on this right, hence, the provision of the regulation is unconstitutional. Another major shortcoming of the regulation is related to special protection to vulnerable groups. The regulation does not give the much needed special protection to prisoners with disabilities.
Aside from the fact that this places Ethiopia in direct violation of the human rights laws that the country has agreed to follow, it means that there are hundreds of prisoners being treated with no respect for their humanity or basic rights. In Addis Ababa, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Centre, commonly known as Maekelawi, is one of the detention centers with reportedly high levels of human rights violations. Maekelawi has different detention blocks, and the treatment of detainees depends on which block they are kept in. One of the most notorious blocks is called Chellema Bet. According to former detainees of Maekelawi, Chellema Bet is the block used mainly for solitary confinement. The other blocks are Tawla Bet – which also has very small cells for solitary confinement – Women’s cells, and Sheraton. Those who are kept in Sheraton are mostly non-political prisoners. This is an indication of the prevalence of discrimination.
In addition to the different blocks, Maekelawi also has a lot of interrogation rooms. The interrogation rooms are located in various parts of the compound. Two former detainees, who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch, have confirmed that one of the interrogation rooms contains a big water container used to torture detainees. Various forms of torture and ill-treatment take place in Maekelawi for the purpose of getting confessions, extracting information and as punishment by the staff. As reported by numerous anonymous former detainees, the types of torture and ill-treatment include punching, slapping, kicking, beating with objects, beating the sole of the feet, stress positions, hanging from the ceiling by handcuffed at the wrists while toes barley touch the ground, whipping and pouring cold water. The treatment of political prisoners is always harsher than the treatment of others.
Kality prison is another prominent prison in the Federal administration. After conducting interviews with a few former prisoners, I found out that prisoners do not get any kind of medical check-up before admission to prison. During their stay in prison, their access to medical services is in the hands of the prison officials. There is no separation of prisoners aside from female and male separation. Prisoners with mental disabilities, diseases, re-offending criminals, juveniles, non-convicted and the convicted, are all kept together. Accommodation in the prison is overcrowded and the rooms have no limit on their maximum capacity. A room for 20 people may be filled with up to 200 people at any time. There is no access to authority for prisoners whose rights have been violated. They can only complain when they are brought before the court for the case upon which they are detained. However, the courts do nothing. Visits by family, friends and lawyers are mostly respected for non-political prisoners, but political prisoners are mostly denied visits from lawyers and family members. Political prisoners in Kality mostly face various forms of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatments. These include torture, mock execution, prolonged and harsh solitary confinement, denial of health care, denial of correspondence to the outside world and the like. This has been confirmed by many anonymous former detainees.
To change the grim situation prisoners are facing, the first and most important step is willingness from the side of the government, which is severely lacking now. All prisoners are at a vulnerable position and the exercise of almost all of their human rights is at risk even if only their liberty has been limited. Prisoners, needless to say, are human beings. As such, they are entitled to the protection of the law. They are deprived of their liberty, but this should not result in the deprivation of any additional rights than is necessary.
The way most prisoners are being treated in Ethiopia is clearly contrary to what the constitution and international agreements demand, and the way political prisoners are being treated is much worse than just substandard; it is torture. The international community should put high pressure on the Ethiopian government to change this situation. It is not just about how prisoners are being treated, and it is not about a matter of lack of resources. Treating someone with respect for inherent dignity is cost free. This is a problem bigger than the situation in the prisons alone. In a country where members of political opposition face torture, there can never be a true democracy.
 Andrew Coyle, A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management, Handbook for Prison Staff, page 11
 Federal Negarit Gazeta, Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Proclamation No 1/1995, Article 21
 Ibid, Article 18
 Ibid, Article 24
 Federal Prisons Commission Establishment Proclamation No. 365/2003 and Council of Ministers Regulations No. 138/ 2007, Treatment of Federal Prisoners
 Federal Negarit Gazeta, Council of Ministers Regulations No. 138/ 2007, Treatment of Federal Prisoners, Article 3(2)
 Human Rights Watch, “They Want a Confession” Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station.
 Interview with M.A and B.G, former prisoners of Kality, May 2 and 5 respectively, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2015