Torture, Inc. (Ethiopia)
By Alemayehu G. Mariam | June 22, 2009

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam
Birtukan Mideksa
Inside the Torture Chambers of the Dictatorship in Ethiopia

Last week, Barry Malone of Reuters reported that families of the suspects allegedly involved in a “terror network” against the dictatorship in Ethiopia told him that some of their loved ones had “been tortured and are injured. They have been interrogated for up to nineteen hours. One man with injuries to his penis had to be treated in hospital.” Voice of America’s Peter Heinlien further reported:

At a pre-trial hearing, attorneys and defendants in the so-called ‘Ginbot Seven’ case indicated the accused had suffered physical and psychological abuse while being held in pre-trial detention. Former army General Asamenew Tsige, one of five leaders of an alleged coup plot being held in solitary confinement, pleaded for special human rights protection. An attorney for another defendant, businessman Getu Worku, asked that her client be allowed to see a private doctor for injuries suffered in detention. Both requests were denied.

The dictatorship’s servile prosecutor and master of doublespeak, Shimeles Kemal, said: “They have the right to relate any indignities they allege they have suffered openly in court. If this had been the case [tortured], they would have [reported it in court], but they didn't.” In other words, General Asamenew Tsige’s “court” request for “special human rights protection” and the request by Ato Getu’s lawyer for an independent medical examination “for injuries suffered in detention” do not “relate to any indignities the suspects have suffered” while in custody.

It was also reported that less than two weeks ago, Birtukan Mideksa, leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, apparently confronted her prison guards after being kept for six harrowing months in solitary confinement. According to the report, she was manhandled by the prison guards until paramedics were called by the warden of Kality prison. Birtukan was given some sort of sedative by the paramedics to render her motionless and speechless. It appears she was temporarily transferred to a cell with two other female inmates following this incident.

None of the “Tales From the Torture Chambers” of the dictatorship in Ethiopia comes as a surprise to anyone who has followed events there over the past few years. The torture chambers are veritable dungeons of horror and terror as documented in the February, 2009 U.S. State Department human rights report on Ethiopia:

Although the constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials tortured, beat, or mistreated detainees. Opposition political party leaders reported frequent and systematic abuse and intimidation of their supporters by police and regional militias, particularly in the months leading up to the local and by-elections held during the year. In Makelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, police investigators reportedly commonly used physical abuse to extract confessions. Innocent people are tortured for any reason.

In April 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle made the following conclusion following its private investigation: “Interviews with dozens of people across the country, coupled with testimony given to diplomats and human rights groups, paint a picture of a nation that jails its citizens without reason or trial, and tortures many of them -- despite government claims to the contrary.” Bereket Simon, the Svengalian player in the capo dictator’s inner circle, responded to the Chronicle investigation by issuing a blanket denial: “No way. No way. No way. I think you know, these are prohibited by laws, by Ethiopian laws -- torture, any human treatments… In fact, we have been improving on our prison standards. We've been working hard to train the police forces, the interrogators.”

The Law Against Torture and the Prohibition Against Inhuman Treatment

Torture is illegal! Torture is illegal!

Article 1 of the Declaration Against Torture (1975) defines torture as: … any act by which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by, or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession; punishing him for an act he has committed; or intimidating him or other persons…. Torture constitutes an aggravated and deliberate form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Article 18 of the dictatorship’s constitution embraces the Declaration Against Torture by guaranteeing that “Everyone shall have the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Articles 14 and 16 provide a double guarantee by securing “the inalienable and inviolable right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 21 provides prisoners special protections against torture: “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to humane treatment which accords with his human dignity. Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors.”

Under Article 13 of the dictatorship’s constitution, the “fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated… shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” Article 5 of the UDHR and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (both ratified by Ethiopia) are incorporated verbatim in Article 18 of the dictatorship’s constitution (“Everyone shall have the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”). The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) (ratified by Ethiopia in 1994) requires signatories to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders. Articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court include torture as a crime against humanity and a war crime. Many other declarations, conventions and resolutions prohibit and condemn torture in its entirety, and some specifically require official designation of detention centers, registration of the identities of detainees, service of notice of detention to detainee families and records of the times and places of all interrogations.

Torture, Inc. (Ethiopia): The Business of Torture in the Dictatorship’s Prisons

There are a few irrefutable facts on the question of official torture in Ethiopia that need to be stated for the record:

  1. The business of torture in Ethiopia is second only to the business of corruption. Torture, arbitrary arrests, detentions without charges or trials, threats, intimidations and extrajudicial killings are the tools of trade of the dictators’ political enterprise and survival.

  2. The ruling dictatorship is openly scornful of international human rights covenants and the prohibitions of its own constitution on the practice of torture. To the dictatorship, these legal instruments and prohibitions are not worth the paper they are written on.

  3. Torture raises absolutely no moral questions to the depraved dictators. Simply stated, they do not believe torture of a human being is inherently evil and wrong, and unjustified under any circumstances. In their perverted moral universe, they believe torture is an absolutely necessary tool to maintain themselves in power.

  4. The dictatorship could not care less whether the court of world opinion, the International Court of Justice, human rights organizations, countries or anyone else condemns them for practicing torture because they believe fundamentally that they will never be held accountable for their criminal acts.

Having established the foregoing irrefutable facts, we can turn to the central question: Why do the dictators choose to inflict planned and calculated physical and mental pain on their opponents and others they perceive as threats to their power? To answer this question is to understand the dynamics of the internal operation of the dictatorship.

Several reasons can be given. First, the dictators operate in their own echo chamber of intrigue. They talk to themselves and reinforce each other’s fears and paranoia. Looking out through the dark glass of their echo chamber, they see a world inhabited by enemies and adversaries fully engaged in a Grand Conspiracy to uproot them from power. Inside the echo chamber, the dictators live each day in a state of terminal paranoia, re-creating new fantasies of a conspiracy concocted to destroy their chokehold on power. They internalize the massive dissatisfaction of the people with their misrule, the intense popular dislike directed against them and criticisms of their illegitimacy and incompetence, which in turn fuels their illusion of a Grand Conspiracy. They refuse to accept the simple truth that ordinary citizens individually or collectively could on their own (without a grand conspiracy) volition be motivated to reject them and their style of leadership after nearly two decades of tyrannical rule. The fact of total rejection by the society keeps them awake at night. The fact that they are disliked intensely and despised ubiquitously drives them crazy; and they just can’t handle the truth locked in their echo chamber!

The systematic practice of torture becomes their way of lashing out at the individuals they perceive to be the causes of this societal rejection and never-ending resurgence of an illusionary Grand Conspiracy. They justify their actions against their victims by invoking “higher ideals”. Their opponents become “desperado terrorists”, criminals who act “against the constitutional order,” subversives “against the interests of the nation” and defiant deniers of pardon. They convince themselves and try to convince others that those who oppose them are “evil” and they are “good’. They create a rigidly defined world of “them” and “us” and seek to demonize and dehumanize their opponents and critics. They make special laws to punish their imaginary enemies -- independent journalists, civic society institutions, opposition political party leaders and members -- and to demonstrate to the international community that any actions they take, including torture, is legal.

Second, the torture of the “desperado terrorists” is really not motivated by any fear of what the “desperadoes” could do to overthrow them or “wreak havoc” in the country. It has everything to do with sending a message to the “masterminds” outside of the country, and discouraging opponents, dissidents and others considered threats from further political activity within the country. It should be understood that the dictators’ use of torture against the “desperadoes” has little to do with criminal investigation or information gathering. The dictators know that there is little information that can be obtained from the “desperadoes” through physical beatings and severe psychological trauma. As they have publicly conceded, the whole “conspiracy” is directed by “masterminds” from the outside. There is little reliable or useful information the “desperado” detainees can provide through torture about the outside “masterminds”. In any case, any information they may acquire from the “desperadoes” by torturing them is unlikely to produce useful information because the whole “conspiracy” theory is a fabrication of the dictators themselves. No reasonable person could believe an 80-year old grandfather could lead a “terrorist network”. The bizarre official tale of a gallery of “desperadoes”, “terrorists,” “disgruntled” military officers, shadowy assassins and “dangerous” international “masterminds” who manipulated them all by remote control from the United States and Europe is so goofy that it deserves serialization in Marvel’s comic books.

But there is also a larger message to the population. By torturing the “desperadoes” and hundreds of thousands of other innocent people, the dictators seek to project the illusion of invincibility and omnipotence. Although they are objectively weak, have very little support in the population and are generally confused and inept in handling the enormous social, political and economic problems they have created, they still want to project the illusion that they are totally powerful, strong and unbeatable. Torture serves to enhance this illusion by publicizing the fact that they can eliminate, punish or neutralize their opponents into silence, fear or apathy.

Third, the dictators use torture to break down the will power and self-identity of their victims and bring them into total submission. They will use any means to achieve this purpose, including isolation, humiliation, intense psychological pressure and physical pain. The accumulated evidence from those lucky enough to have escaped the dictators’ torture chambers speak not only of the brutal acts of torture voluminously documented by international human rights organizations (e.g. physical beatings until victim loses consciousness; suspension of victims by feet and hands, face downwards, with chest touching the floor; electric shocks on legs and back; denial of food, water and sleep; beatings with rubber truncheons, tying a large bottle of water around a victim’s testicles; shackling, beatings to coerce the signing of false confessions, etc.) but also of the terror instilled in victims to destroy their identity and sense of self and well-being (e.g. prolonged solitary confinement, ethnic insults and personal humiliation, threats about family and children, forcing victims to view others being tortured and so on).

Fourth, the dictators use a special torture technique against the thousands of their ordinary and “unknown” victims to keep them in a state of complete despair. It is called torture by prolonged detention without charges or trial. Such victims have no idea why they are arrested or jailed. They have no idea if they will ever be charged, brought to trial or released. They have no visitors. They have no means of challenging their detention (even though Art. 19 of the dictators’ constitution provides for a court challenge [habeas corpus] where the “public prosecutor fails to bring the accused to court within the time limit provided by law.” They have no one to defend their rights or publicize their illegal detention. They live in a world of complete hopelessness and helplessness. Their torture has no cut off date. Many fall into a state of deep depression and resort to primitive mechanisms such as splitting (hatred of their torturer and themselves), dissociation (disconnect from their thoughts, memories, feelings, or sense of identity) and introjection (internalize the abusive and negative view of the victim created by the torturer and attributes of their all-powerful torturer). These experiences have been reported by former victims lucky enough to make it out of the dictators’ torture chambers.

Birtukan Mideksa’s Solitary Confinement: A Case Study of Psychological Torture

Although Article 21 of the dictatorship’s constitution guarantees that “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors”, Birtukan has spent the past six months in total solitary confinement prison in a “cell measuring 2m square”. She is visited by her mother and child every week for a few minutes. Even when she is allowed her few minutes with her mother, she is supervised and censored by one of the prison cadres. She is allowed only to exchange pleasantries with her mother. All other conversations are strictly prohibited. She is not allowed to visit with her lawyer or other family members, close friends or religious counselors despite two standing “court” orders. According to one report, an official from Kality prison could not explain why Birtukan is in solitary confinement. He stated that solitary confinement is reserved for “dangerous or violent criminals,” which he admitted Birtukan is not. Amnesty International considers Birtukan “at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”

Sometimes referred to as the “invisible torture” or “torture lite”, solitary confinement (long periods of incommunicado detention) is a sophisticated and subtle form of mental torture that is just as bad as physical torture, as recent empirical studies have shown. In the classic handbook Torture and Its Consequences (1992), the medical, psychiatric and psychological issues of torture victims have been established. Victims held in solitary confinement for all, or nearly all, of the day with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction often suffer severe psychological harm. The psychiatric effects of solitary confinement include perceptual distortions, hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory, intrusive obsessional thoughts, aggressive ruminations, overt paranoia deteriorating into a state of being spaced out and problems of impulse control. Other effects include insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits. Recollections of the traumatic torture events intrude in the form of nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks, and distressing associations long after the torture victim is released from detention.

The sadistic dictators in Ethiopia understand that solitary confinement could be an effective weapon in breaking down Birtukan’s will and destroying her self-identity and effectiveness as a leader. They have learned from decades of practice that by keeping Birtukan in prolonged and painful isolation, they can create the conditions for her to first lose grasp of her identity and sense of self followed by disconnection to reality, her friends and colleagues in the party, the Ethiopian people at large and her supporters throughout the world. Her torturers expect that over a prolonged period of isolation she will lose her raison d'etre (reason for existence) and that she will come to believe that she is all alone in the world and forgotten by the world outside. As her isolation continues, they expect her to disintegrate psychologically – that is, experience a breakdown in her conviction about her very existence and the reality of her external world – and ultimately become her own psychological torturer.

There is a secondary aim in the dictatorship’s use of solitary confinement against Birtukan, (and many others in similar situation including Gen. Asamenew Tsige). Should Birtukan be released in the future, the dictators hope that the harm she suffered through prolonged confinement will be so intense that she will have permanent psychiatric disability, including psychological impairments which will seriously reduce her capacity to lead her party and people and reintegrate into the broader society. The scientific data suggest that victims of prolonged solitary confinement suffer a very high likelihood of cognitive impairment (learning and memory loss), social withdrawal, inability to maintain long-term relationships, phobias, ideas of reference and superstitions, delusions and hallucinations long after they have been set free. To make a long story short: The sole and only reason for torturing Birtukan by solitary confinement is to drive her literally crazy, mad, insane. There is no other reason!

Birtukan and All Ethiopian Political Prisoners and Torture Victims: You are Not Alone!

Official torture is not simply about brutalizing and inflicting massive amounts of physical pain on the victim. It is first and foremost about destroying the inner self of the victim, and the recreation of a shell of a human being that is incapable of thinking or resistance. Torture is about taking fully functioning human beings and making them the living dead. It is also about using the living dead as an example to those living in constant fear and trepidation that resistance to the dictator’s rule is not only futile but also impossible.

The scientific data clearly show that nothing gives torture victims more spiritual, emotional and cognitive energy and power than knowledge of the fact that they are not alone and are not forgotten by their families, friends, compatriots and the outside world. For torture victims, nothing is more important than the thought of knowing that others share their pain and are thinking about them and working on their behalf to set them free. Just this thought alone makes their dehumanizing experience in the vermin-infested torture chambers bearable, and sustain their will to never submit to their torturers. That is why I ask every freedom-loving, human rights respecting, decent and moral human being to join in the effort to FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!

I look forward to the day soon when Birtukan Mideksa will emerge triumphantly from the dungeon of her solitary confinement in Kality prison and proclaim the magnificent words of Nelson Mandela to the people of Ethiopia:

We have at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another... Let freedom reign. God Bless Africa, and Ethiopia!

Free Birtukan And All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at

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