How Long can Ethiopia’s Political Prisoners Survive?

Published on 21 February 2021 at 13:14

Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed are two of the largest political figures in Ethiopia, yet one stands in the Ethiopian parliament, and the other, in a prison cell. The two men were not always so distant. They worked together during the Oromo protests in 2018 that helped bring Mr. Ahmed to power, but since then they have drifted politically, with Mr. Ahmed leading the government with the Prosperity Party, and Mr. Mohammed splitting off with the Oromo Federalist Party. Their differences were cemented when Mr. Mohammed was charged with terrorism, among other offences, along with 23 other opponents of the Ahmed-led government, in September 2020.


There is widespread belief that these charges are politically motivated, as they coincide nicely with the planned June 2021 national elections. In protest against this detention, 20 senior imprisoned opposition leaders have gone on hunger strike, demanding that Mr. Ahmed’s government release prisoners of conscience and reinstate the political licenses of the opposition parties.


As we approach the fourth week of the hunger strike, the prisoners have begun to show the effects of starvation. In particular, 60 year old Bekele Gerba, a senior Oromo politician, has begun to experience symptoms of acute liver damage, and has been brought to an army hospital, after being refused access to private medical care.


The supreme court of Ethiopia has ruled in favour of allowing the prisoners to receive private medical treatment, but access has been denied by prison officials, after receiving orders from the office of Ethiopia’s Attorney General (AG). The AG has filed numerous appeals against this decision from the court, citing the putative “danger to public safety” posed by the dying prisoners.


The prisoners were charged following a period of violence prompted by the murder of popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa on 29th June 2020. At his funeral a few days later, two mourners were shot dead and another seven were injured in what became a bloody battle between ethnic Oromo separatists and police forces supported by militias of ethnic Amhara people.


Mr. Mohammed was a vocal protester against Hundessa’s death and the death of over 700 Oromo shortly afterwards, with one of his Facebook posts saying, "They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again!!...You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER!!". While it is still unclear who, or what group is responsible for Mr. Hundessa’s death, it has given Prime Minister Ahmed the opportunity to imprison many political opponents.


This is not the only conflict to come out of Mr. Ahmed’s tenure. The conflict between the government and ethnic Tigrayan people has continued for months, leading to the deaths of hundreds at the hands of Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces. Thousands more have been displaced from their homes, with many fleeing to nearby Sudan, and many more displaced within Ethiopian borders. Refugees are also now beginning to feel the effects of malnutrition, as the government continues to block aid packages from reaching the population.


For now, one can only play the waiting game and hope that Mohammed, Gerba and the other political prisoners receive the medical attention they require, and, however unlikely, the government will step down from its mandate of terror and oppression.

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