Addis Abeba, November 24/2016 – Ethiopian prosecutors have charged at least 38 inmates for “causing fire and beating 23 prisoners and making them burn” at Qilinto prison, a maximum security prison located in the southern outskirt of the capital Addis Abeba.

A fire at the Qilinto prison on September 3, 2016 has caused the death of disputed numbers of inmates and the destruction of, according to yesterday’s charge, over 10 million birr worth property.  

However, the charge, filed at the Lideta federal high court 19th criminal bench here in the capital Addis Abeba, contradicted the government’s earlier statement that 21 inmates have died of suffocation during the fire and two were killed by prison security while trying to escape. Now prosecutors say they were charging the 38 inmates, under the file name of inmate Masresha Sete, “for beating” the 23 inmates and making them “to burn to death.”  The charge also accuses the inmates of having links to outlawed opposition organizations such as OLF and G7.

Details of what caused the fire and the number of people killed remained disputed. On September 4, in an e-mail message received by Addis Standard, an eyewitness who said he was on guard the morning of Saturday Sep 3, said that “armed prison guards were indiscriminately shooting at prisoners”.  Most of the prisoners were running “frantically to extinguish the fire,” according to the email from the eye witness. He said he had “seen about five prisoners gunned down in the spot by armed security guards from two different directions,”  and added he has helped “18 bodies being taken out of the prison in the late afternoon. As far as I know none of the dead were due to the fire. They all died of gunshot wounds.”

An independent investigation conducted by Ethiopia Human Rights Project, a diaspora-based initiative documenting human rights abuses in Ethiopia, revealed that a total of 67 prisoners have died in the wake of the incident. Of the 67, the report said 45 have died of bullet wounds.

Yesterday’s charge followed an announcement in the morning by the Government’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) that it has finished its investigation into the fire and will make its findings public by next week.

The incident on September 3rd was followed by heavy security crackdown against families who swarmed the prison area in a frantic attempt to know what happened to their loved ones.  Families of the deceased were unable to follow autopsy results of their loved ones, and the burials of some of the victims were conducted under strict police supervisions.

More than 3000 prisoners, most of them are political prisoners, were estimated to have been inside the prison during the fire. Followed the tragic incident prison authorities have transferred inmates to other prison facilities in the country, mostly to Ziway and Showa Robit prisons, about 200km each south east and north east respectively of the capital.

Abusive prison

Qilinto is known for the harsh treatment of its prisoners, many of who are prisoners of conscious including the prominent opposition leader Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and 21 others with him facing charges of terrorism.  It is also where Yonatan Tesfaye, the young senior opposition Blue Party member, and prominent rights activist is held at.

Recently Bekele Gerba and others with him were mobilizing activists from their cell by sending letters which were secretly smuggled out of the maximum security prison. One such letter called for peaceful resistance as part of the recent #AmharaProtests and #OromoProtests and asked supporters of the protests to shave their heads and wear black, to which supporters responded in numbers.

Currently, Ethiopia is under a  six-month state of emergency which was declared following widespread public protests t which recently resulted in protesters attacking foreign owned business.  The state of emergency is followed by a binge of arbitrary arrests by security forces of journalists, opposition party members, and ordinary individuals. The government admitted that more that 11, 000 Ethiopians are currently held at different detention camps throughout the country.


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