Letter from Kality prison: Who’s guilty?

No one who has not been wrongly imprisoned can really understand how the system, bit by bit, erodes one’s dignity and self-respect. Prizewinning Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was sent down for what she had written to fourteen years for “terrorism”, a sentence that has now been commuted to five years. Her open letter describes her life in the notorious Kality prison.

April 8 2015 Text: Reeyot Alemu Translation from Amharic: Abel Asrat

Dear readers,
Ever since our ironic government handcuffed me based on terrorism charges, I was—and still am—subjected to countless violations of my basic rights. Some of them are as follows:
Even though the constitution guarantees prisoners access to a lawyer, I and other political prisoners were denied our rights by the Maekelawi prison officials. I was not allowed to see my lawyer until my investigation at Maekelawi was concluded. By then, I was left with only ten days before the transfer to Kality. I was allowed to be visited by my family and friends after two months and three weeks of my detention.

The investigation conducted at Maekelawi was inquisitive about why I wrote the articles I wrote, and who was backing me up. Sometimes, the investigators tried to focus on statements I made during meetings from when I was a high school teacher. They bragged about the competence of their intelligence officers; no word that I had said have gone unheard by them. Such hypocrisy gives me some rest from their boring investigations. What can be more fun than hearing them bragging about the competence of their intelligence officers, over the speeches I made publicly, which are not secret to the public at all?

Gradually, the tone of the investigation started to change its color by demanding me to confess on a false accusation. It sated that I had received a terror mission from Elias Kifle, whom I have worked for as a reporter for his website Ethiopian Review. My confession was to be traded in exchange for my freedom. As a consequence of my firm stance in not accepting their offer, I was kept 13 days in solitary confinement in a tiny, bad smelling room with just five minutes access to the toilet in the morning and evening. Following that, the federal prosecutor began to threaten me: If I did not change my mind, I might face the capital punishment.

While in Maekelawi, I was subjected to different kinds of physical abuse; I was slapped and slammed to the wall. But in comparison to the torture and physical abuse that the men is facing, it was like a pinch. So let me skip it.

This does not mean, however, that the interrogators are compassionate towards women. As a proof of this, we can take a look at Emawayesh Alemu who was brutally beaten. She is suffering from her permanent injuries caused by torture. Maekelawi is a place in which people lose their ability to walk on their own after one week of torture. I can vividly remember the scenes and the screams. It has become my day to day feeling of regret.

Let me pause my narration about Maekelawi and mention Kality, another prison where political prisoners are subjected to human right abuse. I was transferred to Kality on September 8, 2011. During that time, I was warned by the woman security official that my profession as a journalist will end at Kality. She suggested me to remain quiet. During my early days in Kality, I was not given a bed but only a mattress to sleep on together with another inmate. This even though we were both sinus patients, and our room was next to the toilet which made matters worse.

Dear readers. When you try to imagine Kality, I hope that you are not picturing clean, concrete cells and neat beds. If so, ETV has tricked you well. There are only two rooms and one toilet built by Pastor Daniel G/Selassie. The rest of the cells are in poor condition and packed with prisoners. Kality is not only an unpleasantness to the body - but also to the soul.

Since the past few months, the library in the women's zone has made some progress, but ever since my transfer to Kality it has been close to non-existing. I wanted to fill the gap by contributing books sent to me from families and relatives, but half of the books always return due to censorship. History books published by the Addis Ababa University are also in the list of banned books.

After many ups and downs, I was able to get permission to study political science by distance from the Indira Gandhi National Open University, but the Kality security officials were not cooperative in allowing study modules. After a lot of effort I started to get access to the modules, but I was not allowed access to supporting reading materials and books due to their political content, as the censors mentioned. Unfortunately, I was compelled to withdraw my studies due to inconsistent access to modules and books.

In Kality, it was not only me who were deprived of my basic rights, but also those who greeted me, just for befriending with me. I have spent most of my time in Kality in a crowd of prisoners, but those who tries to approach me as a friend faces threats and searches.

My medical condition has been mentioned several times by my family. I will therefore only give a brief over view. Even though I have had appointments for medical examinations at the Black Lion Hospital, I have most of the time missed my appointments because the prison officials refuses to permit my visits. After going through surgery on my left breast, the doctor said that I should come back in three days to get the plaster removed, and after a week to remove the surgical stitches. But the security officials guarding me interfered and told my doctor that I can receive the remaining treatment at the prison's medical clinic. I was quite aware of that they will not give me permission to get access to a doctor in such an adjacent and frequent schedule.

As a result I was given an appointment after three months. By the time the surgical stitches were to be removed, I informed the security officials. They linked me up with a medical staff member who was a former guerilla fighter. She informed me that I was supposed to carry out all my medical treatment at the Black Lion Hospital. She was very rude towards me and I did not want to be treated by her because of her hate towards me. When I returned to the security officials and asked them to take me to the Black Lion, they informed me that I do not have an appointment to go there. I personally do not want to take any surgery at Kality, even though I am now easing my pain with painkillers.

Another point I would like to mention regarding Kality, is the meetings that are arranged with government cadres and officials against my will. Last year, for instance, some ten people from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, including Ambassador Teruneh Zenna, came to my cell. Since I know that the reports by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission are far from truthful, I was not cooperative in meeting them. I left my cell and stood outside the moment I saw them. One of the men started to take pictures, but he did not take any pictures while I was sleeping on the floor and suffered from my breast pain. He did not take such pictures because he did not want to reflect on the bad handling of prisoners.

The real reason they built me the tiny room in September, was due to the fact that they wanted to use it as a cover up to all their misconduct and mistreatment. The men who visited me from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission were not satisfied by the photos they took the first day. Instead, four men came on the next day. Two of them entered the compound to my cell, and two of them stood in my cell gate. One of the men asked me about my disinterest in talking to them the day before. He wanted me to give an explanation. While he was talking to me, the other man tried to take a picture of me. I instantly snapped and told the man that “if the photo the other man is taking is to be used in a statement I have not made, then I will confront him.” I slammed the door and stayed in my room.

After a few minutes, I told the security officials that when EPRDF (People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) do not get enough of my suffering here, they send phony human rights officials trying to take pictures. The security officials replied that they were not aware of the that the men was having a camera.

When a public relation officer from the Federal Correctional Facility came to talk to me in 2013, he was hiding a recorder in his coat. I made it clear to him that he will only be able to record my voice when the private press also attends. I needed the private press to be present because I have witnessed a lot of edited interviews that were misleading and intended to fit the context of the government agenda. All of them were conducted in the absence of private media. Ironically, both of these incidents, the prison security officials denied being aware of that the men visiting me were equipped with a video camera and a recorder.

Since the issues in Kality is countless, let me just wrap up with one more point regarding my correction time. Dear readers, my right to be visited by friends, relatives and a lawyer has been violated for one year and four months, my family excepted. My elderly mother and father are struggling with illness and aging when visiting me.

Last year, around the afternoon of July 24, I was taken by a police officer to a lawyers' office located inside the prison. I then met with Commander Aschalew, a probation officer at the federal correctional facility. After exchanging greetings, his first question was: “Why did you not ask for pardon? Have you not changed your mind about not asking for pardon?” I then explained to him that I did not ask for pardon because I have not done anything wrong that would make me ask for pardon. He replied: “This is a court decision and we should not be going back about your innocence”. I told him that I have no interest whatsoever in asking for a pardon by a kangaroo court ruled by the ruling party.

He asked me: “Earlier you said that you do not ask for pardon because you do not regret your action. How are you going to do with the probation, since it is only given for those who accept and regret their action?” He tried to briefly discuss some criteria and regulations regarding the probation. I asked him: “Is there then no difference between pardon and probation?” He was not willing to reply. Instead, all prisoners who have two months left before completing two thirds of their time in prison, are given a form to fill. It is a probation stating their regret about their actions, demanding for consideration of probation.

I made it clear to him that I was detained while defending the truth, and that I do not regret what I wrote about, and instead of filling a probation I am quite committed to keep on my struggle for freedom of speech. The commander then stated that it is hard for them to consider probation for someone like me, who do not regret my action. He suggested another option by asking: “What if we fill the form on your behalf?” I then made it clear to him that “if you dare to fill the probation on my behalf, I will expose you for falsely filling the form on my behalf.” After a while he suggested me to consider my stance, and left.

October 22 (two months after I was contacted by Commander Aschalew) would have been the day of my release if I had filled in the form.

Dear readers, lastly, I wish to see a democratic Ethiopia where justice is served. I promise to do everything I can to achieve this. For those of you who may ask: “What can you do?” my answer will be a quote from a book titled Yefikir Abiyot. It says:
“I can’t do everything but not being able to do everything can’t stop me from doing what I can”. 

This text has been edited by Melody Sundberg. A longer version of it can be found here