By Obsa O.
December 14, 2012, ADDIS ABABA (Opride) — Ethiopia’s Federal Court sentenced two Oromo prisoners of conscience languishing at the notorious Kaliti prison, Bekele Garba and Olbana Lelisa to eight and thirteen years, respectively, under charges of “inciting a secessionist rebellion.”
According to Bloomberg News, seven other Oromos were given sentences ranging from three to 12 years “for getting training in camps in Kenya and being involved in gunfights with Ethiopian soldiers.” In the case of Gerba and Lelisa, one of the evidence used by the prosecutor to win a guilty verdict was speaking to the BBC and meeting with representatives of the UK-based human rights group, Amnesty International.
Ethiopia’s little known Kaliti prison smacks of South Africa’s apartheid-era Robben Island, where thousands of Black South Africans including Nelson Mandela spent their darkest days. The brutality of the apartheid system did not stop at sending freedom thirsty individuals to jail; many were also slayed in their quest for freedom.
Later on, after their ‘long walk to freedom’, Robben Island, South Africa’s equivalent of Alem Bekagn, became an iconic spot for the freedom fighters. The political nature of Robben Island’s inmates, the accounts of terrible prison conditions, and the state of prisoners resemble that of Ethiopia’s Kaliti today.
But unlike Robben Island, Kaliti–a notorious prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa where prisoners dreadfully stockpiled with poor hygiene and visits by family members and lawyer are at the discretion of a bureaucratic prison supervisor–is little known to the world.
Kaliti houses an estimated 20,000 Oromo political prisoners. Oromo students, academics, members and leaders of opposition have been thrown into this jail under concocted charges. Among them, very few are convicted while the majority languishes without proper legal prosecution. Of course, there are also hundreds of prisoners from different ethnic groups, though their number and the cases they were charged with are incomparable to that of Oromo prisoners. The overwhelming majority of Oromo inmates are prisoners of conscience, who were convicted solely based on their political views and membership in Oromo ethnic group.
“It is bad for Ethiopia that so many Oromos are in a prison,” said Bulcha Demeksa in a recent interview with The Reporter newspaper. “Young people, the productive segment of the society are suffering in jails, in tens of thousands, without committing any crime.”
The sheer brutality and abuse of Oromo prisoners at Kaliti has been documented by human rights activists. The case of Alemayehu Gebra, a physically disabled detainee who was shot to death in prison, underscores this enigma. Gerba, an engineering student at Addis Ababa University, was picked up by security forces from class and jailed at Kaliti in Nov. 2005 after opposing the transfer of Oromia’s capital city from Finfinne (Addis Ababa) to Adama. Despite his medical status, Gerba was reportedly tortured on several occasions and was later shot to death after spending four years incarcerated without due process of law.
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