Ethiopian security officers have been systematically extorting and abusing Tigrayan civilians held without charge, including minors and the elderly, since a wave of nationwide mass arrests began last year, according to alleged victims and their families.
Estimates say thousands of civilians have been rounded up since the conflict between rebels from the country’s northern Tigray region and Ethiopia’s national army began 15 months ago.
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At least 1,000 Tigrayans – including United Nations staff – were arrested in two weeks in November 2021 in the capital Addis Ababa, according to the UN.
The Ethiopian government says it only targets those suspected of supporting the rebels. But as profiling and detentions increased, so did the extortion of detainees by police and prison wardens, according to victims and relatives of victims who spoke to Al Jazeera over the past month.
“We have become a commodity in prison,” said Kirubel*, who spent up to seven months detained in an Addis Ababa facility until his family paid for his release. “They slap a price on you. Then your loved ones have to find the money and buy your freedom.”
Prison wardens, government prosecutors and officials from the local attorney general’s offices are among those alleged to have demanded exorbitant bribes for release. Detainees also told Al Jazeera that payments are often required to secure medicine, and in some cases to use toilets and showers throughout their indefinite detentions.
Segen*, also in Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera that the police phoned to demand a 2,500 birr ($50) payment to cover cleaning and drinking water for his imprisoned brother.
“Prisoners were getting two pieces of bread to eat a day. Other detainees [who didn’t pay for water] were eating this without ever washing their hands, even after toilet use.”
Some relatives of prisoners described being asked to deliver as much as 500,000 Ethiopian birr ($10,000) in ransom payments.
But in Ethiopia, where the average annual income is less than $1,000, the majority of detainees have languished behind bars, with their impoverished families unable to afford the release price.
Haimanot* said she was asked to pay the equivalent of $1,200 for the release of her 17-year-old son held in Addis Ababa. He had been in detention for more than a month.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said, sobbing over the phone.
In response to queries from Al Jazeera about allegations of extortion, an official from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Justice conceded that he was aware of cases of “bribery” but denied that the problem was systematic and said action was being taken to stamp out the practice.
“Several federal and municipal police commission members have been charged with bribery,” said Awel Sultan, communications head at the justice ministry. “But they don’t represent the majority of our committed and ethical police force.”
But alleged victims told Al Jazeera of pervasive extortion and increasing abuse.
State of emergency
Conflict erupted in Ethiopia in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military incursion into Tigray after Tigrayan forces attacked federal military bases in the region. Abiy’s government took the regional capital, Mekelle, within three weeks and declared victory.
But the conflict has dragged on, killing tens of thousands of people, displacing millions, and leaving nearly 40 percent of the 6 million people living in the Tigray region facing extreme food shortages, according to the latest report from the World Food Programme.
The government declared a state of emergency in early November 2021 after Tigrayan forces had regained territory and threatened to march on Addis Ababa. Thousands of Tigrayans were rounded up in the Ethiopian capital and sent to detention centres that month.
“Government security forces have subjected Tigrayans from all walks of life and ages to sweeping ethnically based arrests, enforced disappearances since the beginning of the conflict, in Ethiopia’s capital and beyond. Thousands have been lingering in detention for months,” Laetitia Bader, Human Rights Watch director for the Horn of Africa, told Al Jazeera by email.
“Releases seem to be as arbitrary as the arrests, with many detainees never seeing a day in court or having a chance to plead their cause.”
Family members describe receiving phone calls from mysterious middlemen who instruct them on how to transfer the sums of money demanded to a specific bank account.
Al Jazeera is aware of one case where a detainee was allegedly allowed to call his relatives to arrange his own ransom payment.
Wardens are said to take particular care to ensure that there are food shortages and enough beatings to induce regular payments.
Kidane* was released in December after spending four months at a police holding centre and another two months at a larger detention facility.
He and the other five were held at a police station in the town of Bishoftu in July, half an hour’s drive outside of Addis Ababa, where he recalls being beaten on three different occasions by the guards.
“The first time was because they wanted money. They had implied and even asked nicely but I didn’t give them [money] because I didn’t have any, so one of the wardens, there are good ones and bad ones, just beat me up.”
Other times, Kidane says, he and others were simply beaten for being Tigrayans.
Kidane, who says he is a civilian with no link to the rebels, said he was taken to court five times in those first four months in police detention but not charged.
He was later moved to another detention facility within Bishoftu, he said, as the cells at the police stations could not manage the sudden influx of detainees after the federal government declared the state of emergency in November.
He said the larger detention centre was severely overcrowded, with 500-600 people in one large hall that was not designed for more than 150.
“In the detention centres, there were men as old as 88. I would estimate there were as many as 50 minors, if you are referring to anyone under eighteen,” he said. “Even the sickly elderly were denied medical assistance. The place was overcrowded, hot and they didn’t turn the lights off because they wanted to keep an eye on us the whole time.”
In January, Human Rights Watch accused the Ethiopian government of arbitrarily detaining, mistreating and forcibly disappearing Tigrayan migrants deported from Saudi Arabia.
The rights group’s findings corroborate testimony shared with Al Jazeera by detainees including Kidane, who said deportees from Saudi Arabia were being sent to detention centres in droves.
“The guards assume that returnees from the Middle East have money, so they would beat them. They would take four or five out at night and beat them up to be an example for the rest of us to cooperate,” Kidane said.
Kidane estimates he paid more than 50,000 birr (just over $1,000) to prison guards to shower, use the toilet, and be allowed to visit a clinic for typhoid and bronchitis he says he contracted while behind bars.
Justice ministry spokesman Awel admitted that he was aware of reports of mistreatment of prisoners and arrests of minors, but said the erosion and suspension of civil rights are to be expected under a national state of emergency.
“The detention of minors in juvenile facilities isn’t guaranteed either. There could be many reasons why young offenders are detained with adults. It could be space limitations or perhaps police may not be sure of their ages,” Awel added.
“As the number of people detained is higher (than usual), it’s difficult to permit them to exercise all of their rights. We are working to prevent crime and sustain the country,” Awel said.
“The target of the state of emergency is to limit the rights of a few people in order to protect the rights of the entire nation.”
‘A very valuable hostage’
Federal forces have regained territory in recent months, forcing the Tigrayan rebels to retreat to the northern region in December.
But despite the Tigrayan losses and Awel’s claims that many corrupt security officers have been reined in, there are no obvious signs of a slowing in the extortion racket for current prisoners. Nevertheless, there does appear to be a decline in indiscriminate arrests of Tigrayans.
During January, when Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas and Timket, a holy day commemorating the baptism of Christ, detainees say that there was an upscale in ransom payments, with police and middlemen taking advantage of the desperation of families to be reunited with their loved ones for the holidays.
Middlemen are also said to have preyed on detainees with family members abroad.
Kidist*, who lives in the United States, told Al Jazeera she was asked to pay 500,000 birr ($10,000) to free her brother and an elderly uncle who is on medication. They had been held at an Addis Ababa centre for over a month.
Meanwhile, Meseret* said she sent large sums of money from the UK to free her younger brothers.
“If they think they can get euros and dollars for you, you become a very valuable hostage.”
Additional reporting in Addis Ababa by Fasika Tadesse.
*Names have been changed for safety concerns.