Kaliti Prison: An eye-witness account

CUD leaders
"The crime of the CUD leaders is they ran for parliament and won."- US Congressman Donald Payne (June 8, 2007). Read also Amnesty Intl's Prisoners of Conscience
May God the Almighty be praised, for he has pulled me out of the jaws of the Ethiopian hyena, for he has allowed me to write this urgent call to rescue our dear leaders, journalists and civic society members who have been languishing for almost two years in unspeakable harsh prison conditions. I am not making this call because I am an important figure. I am making this call because I have a moral responsibility as an Ethiopian citizen and I have first hand information about the prison conditions these leaders are in.

I was one of the Kaliti “prisoners of conscience” until my release on April 7, 2007. I have experienced the challenges of passing each day in prison with no means of communication and enjoyment; the challenges of listening to the insults of the uncivilized watchmen pointing their guns at us 24/7; begging them to take us to the so called health center, seeing our family be ridiculed in front of us by the unruly guards during visiting hours; the difficulty of adapting to the temperature of the congested and corrugated iron cells, the stench of the toilets during the hot days; the difficulty to control our temper when hearing the voices of young Ethiopians arrested as ‘adegegna bozene’ (hooligans) begging to be executed rather than being tortured every day.

I have seen with my own eyes “Gashe” Hailu (Eng. Hailu Shawel, Chairman of the CUDP) struggling with death every night when his sugar level rises and falls unexpectedly, or when he is unable to read books for lack of eye treatment. I have seen him having great difficulty walking due to problems with his leg resulting from sleeping on a wet floor when he was first arrested. I have seen Professor Mesfin struggling to walk upright, as a result of the excruciating back pain he suffers from. I have seen Dr. Yacob losing his eyesight fast; I have seen Dr. Befekadu coughing every night. I have seen many more hardships that these leaders are subjected to every day and night. Is it not, then, my moral imperative to speak on behalf of these innocent victims of Meles Zenawi’s brutality?

Well meaning Ethiopians may wonder why I was released? Some may argue and then conclude that my release last April was a good indication of the independence of the court. Yes, I agree with them that the court released me and a few others on April 7, 2007. While I may understand their argument, I disagree with their conclusion as to why I was set free after almost two years. To be perfectly honest, I believe only God knows why I was released. Although I am out of prison, I am not yet free: The prosecutor has appealed the decision to the high court. My organization has also been found guilty and the court has ruled that I will be responsible for the penalty the court will impose on the organization. More over the Editor in-chief of Addis Zena Newspaper is still in prison.

Had the court released me because the prosecutors failed to present hard evidences, I am absolutely certain that it would have also released all the other prisoners. I can unequivocally tell you that all the evidences brought to the court by the prosecutor and used as the basis for handing a guilty verdict are entirely fabricated and utterly frivolous. Some of the fabricated documents presented were not even well prepared. In two different letters you could find two different signatures and titles signed and approved by the same person. Most of the witnesses brought by the prosecutor could not even narrate what they have been carefully coached to say. For us, it was like watching a 24 hour drama, seeing a government producing false witnesses to accuse its own people and these witnesses, in turn unable to say properly what they have been told. We saw those same false witnesses sweating nervously and sometimes confessing the truth that they have been told to lie.

How can a video showing armed men shooting straight into the eyebrows of young bare handed Ethiopians’ be brought as evidence against innocent people, most of whom never pulled a trigger in their life, to convict them as guilty? Who owns the guns?

The court knows that every thing the prosecutor was doing was criminal, but it had no power to penalize the prosecutors for bringing readymade witnesses and false evidences to accuse the innocent. Had the court had power it would have disgraced the prosecutors in public for distorting the noble ideas of law and justice. It’s a well-known fact that all the evidences brought against the defendants, would make the defendants free and the prosecutors and the government guilty.

The decision of the court is the decision of Meles Zenawi. More than once he has boldly declared in public, that the defendants were guilty, and the court doesn’t have any choice, but to accept the PM’s words. Who has the right to oppose or over rule what Meles Zenawi says in Ethiopia?

The June 11th, 2007 guilty verdict on the innocent prisoners is not only a shame for Meles, but it is also a shame for the International Community which has been giving him all the support he needed for the last 16 years. It is a shame for Blair who made him a member of his African Commission; it is a shame for Bush who gave him bullets and armored cars to use against his own people, a shame for the African Union members who considered him as a “new breed of African leaders.” After 16 years Meles’ supporters must realize that he came to power undemocratically, rules undemocratically and will fall undemocratically.

Who are these opposition party leaders in the other extreme about whom I am talking about? I got the opportunity to study them closely for more than a year .I shared the small cell with CUD Chairman, Hailu Shawel, CUD Executive Council members Dr. Hailu Araya, Dr Yacob Haile Mariam, Dr. Befekadu Degefe, Mr. Gizachew Shiferaw, Dr. Tadyos Bogale, Mr. Biruck Kebede et al. I had a close look at Eng. Hailu, who is widely accused of being a hardliner and stubborn by the Meles regime and his international supporters. Yes, he is stubborn on one thing --- the truth. He will die for the truth. His lifelong motto is never compromising on the truth. Nothing or no one will ever make him betray the truth. Some may argue that his excessive obsession with truth, in a world that begs men not to be that way, makes him an inflexible and outdated politician for 21st century politics. If that argument is true, the only thing I can say is, it is rather the treacherous world all around us that has made him an out dated politician. Truth and principle matter.

“Gashe” Hailu has an extremely sympathetic heart, he cries like a baby when he watches movies of starving Ethiopians. He is a democrat in the true sense of the word. His ambition, as he always says, is not to be the PM of Ethiopia, but to establish a huge NGO so that he can assist the poor in the streets. I have never observed a quality that makes him an old fashioned politician except his excessive love for the truth. For me even in his 70s he is still a principled, very modern, and energetic politician who has been misunderstood by his critics.

Nothing I could say in this short article will do justice to Dr. Berhanu Nega, Prof. Mesfin WoldeMariam, Dr. Yacob Hailemariam or Dr, Hailu Araya and others.. They are not only the torch-bearers of democracy, they are democracies themselves. Their daily music is democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. And it is these democrats who are languishing in prison under extremely harsh conditions and waiting to be sentenced to death or life in prison. I can assure you that those heroes will choose death over accepting any ultimatum that does not conform with their belief---- democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

I am making this call not only to save the lives of these innocent prisoners, but also to save the ideals of democracy embodied in them and to save the hopes of millions of Ethiopians who expressed their wishes in the historic election of May 15th 2005.

My fellow Ethiopians, let’s do the following simple things:

  • Tell ourselves that what we have done so far to get those heroes freed is not enough
  • Organize continuous protest movements in your districts, cities and countries. I know how much Meles is struggling to regain his lost image muddied by your historic movements. The more you expose him in front of the International Community, the more you erode his confidence and acceptance in the International arena.
  • Your peaceful protests will bolster the confidence of the prisoners in Kaliti, they will know that they have millions of followers behind them carrying their ideals. I remember how delighted we were whenever we heard that Ethiopians in this and that country held demonstrations demanding for our release and for democratic governance in Ethiopia Those types of news always increased our confidence and eroded the confidence of our jailers.

I assure you that Meles will lose his remaining international support through constant demonstrations that exposes his tyrannical rule. His international backers will reach a point when they can no more endure, his shame and their shame, for supporting him. Don’t forget that Mobutu was a Western favorite. But what happened finally when the sun set on his empire? How about Mandela? Wasn’t he considered a terrorist by the West ?

What world politics teaches us is that “there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. By the way, when I keep mentioning the role of the international community, I am not saying that change comes only through them. I sincerely believe that change comes only by the struggle of the Ethiopian people. Our people want change, but it is partly the international community that is standing in the way of the immediate realization of our dream. That is why I am calling on you to hammer that side of the nail.

Finally, I hope that you will start to organize yourselves under your respective political parties and start today overwhelming the cities of the world through constant demonstrations. We will rescue our leaders from the jaws of the Ethiopian hyena to lead that country in peace, unity, and democracy. Only then will our exodus back be hastened.

Fasil Ayenalem, recently released from Kaliti prison, is the former publisher of the now-banned Addis Zena newspaper. He can be reached at

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