Inmates at Ethiopia’s Maekelawi prison in the capital are routinely tortured and denied legal representation during police interrogations in which they are coerced to confess, according to Human Rights Watch.
The 70-page report titled “They Want a Confession: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia” describes how authorities at the central police investigation center in Addis Ababa leave inmates in darkness, handcuff them for months and inflict beatings.
“The coercive methods, exacerbated by the poor detention conditions, are used by the authorities at Maekelawi to maximize pressure on detainees to extract statements, confessions, and other information, whether accurate or not, to implicate them and others in alleged criminal activity,” it said.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Federal Affairs, which is responsible for the prison system, rejected complaints about conditions at the detention center outlined in the report.
“Such confusing, baseless and unfounded allegations may come from an ideological stand and attack on Ethiopia rather than genuine concern to improve the human rights status in our crime investigation center or elsewhere,” Minister of Federal Affairs Shiferaw Teklemariam said in a written response to Human Rights Watch, which is included in the report.
The biggest human rights issues in Ethiopia include restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, and the “politically motivated” trials and convictions of opposition party supporters, activists, the media and bloggers, according to a report on the U.S. State Department’s website.
The New York-based group interviewed 35 former Maekelawi prisoners, which have included political opposition supporters and journalists, as well as their relatives.
About 45 reporters have fled Ethiopia since 2008, the third-highest number in the world after Iran and Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most common reasons for exile include the threat of imprisonment, violence and harassment, the group said.
Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye, who was held in Maekelawi, said he witnessed authorities cut contact with detainees for as many as three weeks to try and force an admission of guilt from them, according to Human Rights Watch. Schibbye and fellow Swedish reporter Johan Persson were pardoned in Sept. 2012 after being arrested with members of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front rebel group in 2011.
“Police say it will be sorted out in court, but nothing will be sorted out in court,” he said, according to the statement. “It’s all built around confession.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate the allegations of abuse and hold those responsible to account.