Journal from an Ethiopian Prison: The Maekelawi Ceremony

This testimony was written by blogger and human rights advocate Befeqadu Hailu in late August 2014. A founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective and a Global Voices community member, he was arrested and imprisoned on April 25, 2014 along with five fellow members of Zone9 and three journalist colleagues. On July 17, 2014, all nine detainees were charged under the Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. 

This is the second of two installments of an abridged version of Befeqadu’s testimony. It was translated from Amharic to English by Endalk Chala and edited for clarity and context by Ellery Roberts Biddle. The full, unabridged testimony is available in PDF form here.

Aerial view of Maekelawi detention center in Addis Ababa. Source: Google Earth, courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

Aerial view of Maekelawi detention center in Addis Ababa. Source: Google Earth. Originally published by Human Rights Watch.

The first installment in this series recounts the activities of the Zone9 bloggers and the short history of their collaboration prior to their arrest. Read part one.

In this installment, Befeqadu describes the interrogation process at Maekelawi detention center, where he and his fellow bloggers were held following their arrest.

The Standard Maekelawi Interrogation

The standard Maekalawi interrogation methods are more about dominance and submission than confidence or creativity. Instead of extracting information from “suspects”, the police officers usually fool around. They spend a great deal of time pretending that they already know the evils you’ve committed. If they cannot successfully extract information from you in this way, they force confessions by punching, beating, extended physical exercise and flogging.

I have concluded that this is the standard interrogation routine at Maekalawi since I have endured it from five different police officers. Other detainees tell me that they have gone through the same procedures. I spoke with some detainees who had undergone even more wicked procedures that were clear violations of their privacy. Some detainees were forced to strip naked and asked to stand or perform sit-ups until dawn.

I met people who suffered from medieval types of torture in an unnamed detention center before they were brought to their pre-trial detention at Maekalawi. These detainees suffered from diabolical barbarity such as forcible extraction of their nails from their fingers, flogging, and hooding. Among them are students from Haramaya University.[1] The information extracted from detainees in the unnamed detention center is then verified through more interrogation at the pre-trial detention center. Detainees never know where they were taken for this brutal investigation because they are hooded throughout. The unnamed detention centers are like black holes. It turns out that the anguish of Ethiopian prisoners, something that appeared to be so distant in memory, is not that far off after all.[2] 

Befeqadu Hailu. Global Voices profile image.

Befeqadu Hailu. Global Voices profile image.

In our case, finally we were made to plead guilty. We confessed under duress. We could not bear the ceaseless brutal and psychologically degrading pressure. We could not carry on surviving the hell of Maeklawi. We ended up telling our interrogators what they wanted to hear. To their delight, we added as many self-incriminating phrases as possible. But phrases like “yes, we wanted to incite violence” never pleased them. So they rewrote our confessions to fit their frame. Some of us tried to explain. Others had to endure beatings. But at last we succumbed to the pressure and signed the carefully scripted confession pages, with the exception of our colleague Abel, who refused to sign at that time. He has survived the pain he has endured since, and his confession, when finally extracted, is completely untrue, to say nothing of ours.

Read: Journal From an Ethiopian Prison, Part 1

Now we know that torture is the part of the Maekelawi ceremony that reveals the “truth” of a crime. I had long thought police interrogations were complex, involving sophisticated skills, knowledge and psychological tactics to establish facts. I now know that police interrogations in Maekelawi are not so elaborate. In fact they are simple. They are like machines that produce guilt in the detainees.

At Maekelawi, the driving principle of police interrogations is that you are guilty unless proven otherwise. Your pleas for innocence – or even for explanation – fall on deaf ears. Interrogators will cook up a crime for you.

The evidence for each of the confessions to which our guilty pleas were attached include our online campaigns, our plans, the articles we wrote, the trainings we attended, the training manuals, the skills we attempted to impart.

Selected documents presented by the public prosecutor as evidence against the Zone9 bloggers:

  • Stop censorship online campaign
  • “Had Wael Ghonim been an Ethiopian” [an imaginary interview with Egyptian Internet activist] – 18 pages
  • Training manual for defenders of civil liberties
  • “The role of social media in the 2015 Ethiopia election” – 9 pages
  • Digital security manual for human rights defenders – 18 pages
  • Security-in-a-Box book [developed by Tactical Technology Collective]

These and many other documents were confiscated from the bloggers’ homes and computers, all of which were searched by authorities in the months leading up to their trial. Read the full list.

We all expected that their plan was to indict us with the charge of provoking public disorder. We thought the ceiling for our “crime” would be accusing us of violating Article 257/8 of the Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But no. We were formally charged under Ethiopia’s Terrorism Proclamation, particularly with violating Article 4, which can result in severe punishment of 15 years to life imprisonment.

A Bad Excuse Is Better Than None?

I think our story can be best explained by an Ethiopian folk tale about a hyena and a donkey.

Once upon a time a donkey and a hyena were drinking from the same stream of water. The belligerent hyena whined to the donkey that she was making his water filthy despite the fact that the hyena was drinking upstream. The donkey told the hyena, “stop looking for a reason to prey on me.” This too is our story: we are the donkey.

They arrested us without knowing anything other than our names. We genuinely believed that if they knew what we were doing, they might understand us. In that spirit, we even passed some of our writings to them through one of their agents prior to our detention. But I don’t think they read our writings. Our interrogators just desperately wanted us to plead guilty. Why would they do that? Maybe they want to keep us away from Ethiopian social media until after the upcoming national election in May 2015. 

For now, let me ponder our future. Will they release us? I will not dwell on the legal possibilities of our “acquittal”, but I will examine our hypothetical chances. Even though the Ethiopian Federal Police, which is an apparatus of the government, arrested us without having probable cause, they still thought they would find some sort of transgression.

As a matter of fact, they could not find anything incriminating even in the wildest interpretation of Ethiopia’s already broad anti-terrorism proclamation. But this did not prevent them from using it. The fact that they did not even deliver a coherent statement of our offenses when they appeared in court to charge us demonstrates that they do not have valid suspicion or evidence. Yet I do not believe that they will release us soon.

EPRDF (the ruling party) is bull-headed.[3] When they see that detainees have generated significant outside support and are critical of their governance, they will not release them, at least not without dehumanizing them. EPRDF is foolish like a child. Note that I am not saying the global support we received is not helping us. Your support is our daily bread. It is warming us like sunshine. I am sure the day shall come in which we say thank you. 

They are fearful. In the weeks leading up to our arrest, they accused us of planning a color revolution following the national election using their media. Though they must know our innocence regarding their fear of inciting violence after the upcoming election, they do not want to risk that there will be a backlash from their actions.

And they want us suffer. They want us to spend our time jail because we are strong critics of their policies. They do not have a sense of decency that would prevent them from handing down judgment on innocent people.

Befeqadu’s testimony was translated from Amharic to English by Endalk Chala and edited for clarity and context by Ellery Roberts Biddle. The full, unabridged testimony is available in PDF form here.

Read: Journal From an Ethiopian Prison, Part 1

Learn more about the Zone9 case at the Trial Tracker Blog.

Six of the detained bloggers in Addis Ababa. Photo used with permission.

The six Zone9 bloggers in Addis Ababa, prior to their arrest. Befeqadu is third from left. Photo used with permission.

[1] Haramaya University in Ethiopia is an independent institution of higher education focused on economic development. More: 
[2] Prison conditions were notoriously inhumane during the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former leader of Ethiopia who was ousted by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in 1991.]
[3] The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is an alliance of political parties that formed a join party coalition during the 1970s and 1980s.  The EPRDF has maintained power in Ethiopia’s Congress and Executive branches since 1991.


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