In April 2014, nine bloggers and journalists were arrested in Ethiopia. Several of these men and women had worked with Zone9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability. Four of them were Global Voices authors. In July, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. They have been behind bars ever since and their trial has only recently begun.
This marks the sixth post in our series – “They Have Names” – that seeks to highlight the individual bloggers who are currently in jail. We wish to humanize them, to tell their particular and peculiar stories. This week, Swedish blogger and artist Melody Sundberg writes about Abel Wabela, a member of Zone9 and the manager of Global Voices’ Amharic site.
I have never been to Ethiopia, but I have followed the never-ending trials of the bloggers closely through social media and conversations. A name often mentioned is that of Abel Wabela, a 28-year-old blogger, author and translator for Global Voices. During the first three months of the bloggers’ detention in Maekelawi*, Abel refused to sign a prepared confession paper in which he, together with the other bloggers, were incriminated. For this, Abel underwent extreme torture. According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Project (EHRP), he was beaten by a person using a stick, and his feet were whipped by someone using a computer plug cable. He was forced to lay on the floor while interrogators stomped on his back, neck and face. Since then, he has had to use a hearing aid as a result of worsened hearing impairment.
According to Endalk Chala, co-founder of the blogging group, Abel had suffered poor treatment even before his arrest. One day, three weeks before the arrest, Abel was beaten as he was walking home from work. Several people appeared and beat him so severely that he lost his consciousness, and they took his cell phone and laptop. He feared beating was a threat, intended to make him stop blogging. But Abel continued his work.
I wanted to know more about Abel, so I asked some of those close to him to describe their friend. Endalk Chala describes Abel as the most kindhearted and wonderful soul. Abel is a man of knowledge and a great conversationalist, and he believes in open and honest discussions. Jomanex Kasaye describes Abel as being straight forward and knowing what he stands for. At the same time, he is very humble. Abel is always hungry for more knowledge. He likes to spend his time in discussions with historians, university lecturers and authors. His faith is important to him. He loves attending in church. He often visited prisoners, having the country and its people in his heart. He always thinks of others rather than himself.
The heartless treatment of Abel continued after his detention in Maekelawi. Following one of the trials in February, prison officials had forgotten to handcuff him on the bus heading back to the prison. For this, Abel was punished. They tied him up with dog chains for the whole day, and took away his hearing aid. During a trial in May, Abel was once again punished for using his right to expression. Abel questioned the judges for not letting the detainees speak. For this, he was sentenced to four months for contempt of court.
The kind of treatment Abel has been put through could break anyone. Still, Abel has kept showing resistance. I ask myself: What is it that makes someone risk being jailed, beaten and tortured? Reading Abel's latest letter, I find the answer:
My purpose is to communicate. My aim is to learn. My reason is to engage in a deep insightful intuitive understanding of life and fight bystander apathy. This is my mission as a human. It is not a task I was given from a stranger. I will not allow anyone to trample on this basic right. I will not bargain with anyone whether they are people of political power, individuals, institutions or even a society to give away my basic speech right. I practice my free speech rights in a public sphere, in my own private space, on social media, in prison, in a court room, in a police interrogation rooms. I use my free speech rights responsibly without hindering other peoples’ rights and I want to practice it everywhere. In hindsight warnings, intimidations, arrest and torture have not stopped me from exercising my free speech rights neither they do in the future.
“To fight bystander apathy… This is my mission as a human.” The sentences form a simple answer to a difficult question. The reason Abel keeps using his freedom of expression is because it is a basic right that can be exercised everywhere in every situation. He has made the choice to use this right, because speaking out against injustice is to fight bystander apathy. I am more than certain that he will continue defending this right for the rest of his life.
We live in a world where some label the use of freedom of expression as an act of terrorism. We also live in a world where others are sacrificing their freedom while defending our right to speak our minds. The Zone9 Bloggers defended human rights. They chose to stand up against injustice. They chose to speak the truth. For this, they were robbed of their freedom.
I do not know Abel today, but I look forward to the day I will.
* Following their arrest, the bloggers and journalists were jailed in Maekelawi. Maekelawi is the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector in Addis Ababa. Political prisoners, journalists, bloggers, protest organizers among others are held there before proceeding to prison. Human Rights Watch has reported about torture, coercive interrogation methods and poor detention conditions taking place there.