Jul 20, 2018

UNPO Perspectives on the Somali Region Following Human Rights Watch’s Damning Report On Jail Ogaden

On 4 July 2018, a damning Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report has been released demonstrating the extent of the public authorities’ abuses of political prisoners in the Somali Regional state of Ethiopia. Included in the accounts are allegations of torture using waterboarding techniques, solitary confinement, stripping of detainees, rape of female prisoners and terrible sanitation conditions. Virtually all the actions detailed are in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT).

The report, which is based on nearly one hundred prisoner accounts, lays eyes on the extent of discriminatory practices conducted against real or alleged Somali political or human rights activists and their relatives in the past decades. The report also contains footage of security guards openly admitting to beatings and torture of prisoners.

One eyewitness, Ali, recounts how the prison guards would set up a system of torture where the severity of the beatings depended on the amount of information given, simply by telling other prisoners that if a tortured individual did not confess, the others would be punished even more severely. Another, Fatima, clearly recounts waterboarding and fake drowning techniques notorious for creating severe trauma.

The Somali Region in Ethiopia has historically been an area with high levels of violence due to the local population suffering at the hands of the Somali Region’s President Abdi Mohamoud Omar, of the Ethiopian Somali People Democratic Party (ESPDP), a party belonging to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. His tenure as Security Officer in the region was marked by brutal reprisals against Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) opposition forces, as well as conflict between Omar’s security forces - the infamous Liyu police, that acts as a paramilitary force for the regional governor - and Oromos in a bid to stoke tensions between two communities.

The discovery of natural resources in the region added a further dimension to the conflict in between the authorities and the Ogadeni community, with new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed approving a pipeline deal worth millions without consultation of the local actors. The new Head of Government has promised widespread reforms to appease the anger felt in his own Oromo community towards the actions taken against them under the Tigray-dominated EPRDF regime, which Omar represents. But the new Prime Minister has yet to address Omar’s position as head of the Somali Region and outline the new governmental stance on the issue of self-determination and the respect for human rights in the Ogaden.  

Ahmed did however admit that the previous government had engaged in torture and State-sponsored terrorism, while taking the ONLF off the official list of designated terrorist groups, alongside opposition groups the Oromo Liberation Front and Ginbot 7. This admission is a remarkable turnaround from the previous stance of denying any wrongdoing whatsoever by the EPRDF-controlled government entities, including the Somali Region, where some of the worst cases of excessive counter-insurgency measures have been used.

But the damning report by HRW has thrown the spotlight back on the new Ethiopian Prime Minister’s stance toward certain ethnic minorities in the diverse East African power. Almost every Ogadeni family knows of a distant member locked up in this prison, and the report clearly names the perpetrators. If the government does not act by putting these perpetrators, including the Regional President himself, on trial, there is a potential crisis of legitimacy brewing in the already frustrated population.

To add to these recommendations, HRW calls on the new Prime Minister to open prison facilities to international scrutiny, intervene to reform or disband the Liyu police and create a special committee to review the actions of the Somali Regional state in Ethiopia.

The UNPO observes that, despite the optimism shown in many quarters of the international community about the changes in the Ethiopian political landscape, some regional governments continue doing business as usual. These are individuals that have committed grave violations of the CAT and other human rights abuses and would be eligible to stand trial in any true democracy.

If then new Premier is to prove he is serious about inclusive democracy, he must open up the political spaces not just in the capital but also across the country and look towards justice measures for the crimes committed against the Somali people in Ogaden.