Dehai News

Ethiopia's Maekelawi: Veritable Hell on Earth

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Date: Thursday, 18 April 2019

By Alexander Riesom

April 18, 2019

During all the years of my stay in the Ethiopian Capital I never knew that in the heart of Addis Ababa, opposite a school, near a hotel, shops, and Orthodox Church, there was one of the country’s notorious police stations, commonly known as Maekelawi or “the Federal Police Crime Investigation “. Nevertheless, I learned that Maekelawi was a horrible detention center where political prisoners, opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, alleged supporters of oppositions, and alleged terrorist suspects are incarcerated until their investigation process is over.   

Two years down the line, my recollection about the horrendous Maekelawi is still fresh in my mind. How come I forget the challenging moments and the sleepless nights I had in that detention center!

A lot have been said about Maekelawi by many of its survivals.  I may not have any new thing to add but as a foreigner victim, I wanted to testify and share my experience on the occasion of the 2nd anniversary of my release.

It is to be recalled that following the ongoing protests and unrest in the Oromia and Amhara region, TPLF declared the first state of emergency on October 2016. In its attempt to quash and contain the uprising/unrest the regime resorted to a ruthless and wanton action. I was one victim of the circumstance. Two weeks after the declaration of the state of emergency I was arrested during the end month of October, 2016 from my home. My home was searched for about four hours in an incredible manner. My lap top, mobile phone, newspapers etc. was seized and eventually I was taken to Federal police in a van escorted by security officers and an armed police officers from Federal police. I had no clue, hence could not comprehend the reason for my arrest. Nevertheless, regardless of the tense situation I convinced myself that being an innocent person, not being involved in any political activities, and having not committed any crime of what so ever nature, nothing bad would happen to me. Therefore, on my way to the “Hell” there was no sign of panic on my part, I was at ease with myself.  

During my first night at the infamous Maekelawi I came to know that those who know its history feel sorry for anyone who sets foot in its compound.  After my arrival in Maekelawi I was taken straight to the detention Administration office for registration. After the registration process was over, immediately a federal police in military uniform came and handcuffed me; the first incident in my entire life and handed me over to an investigator. The pretentious investigator after recording my background statement, to my surprise asked me why I was there. My response to him was I don’t know, you tell me.  After a while however, he boasted and said that they know over 90% about me therefore the best thing for me would be to tell the truth and expedite the process of the investigation, in my own interest, if that is not the case he hinted that in the process of the investigation I would suffer a lot and probably may not be able to endure the situation. He continued, it would be indeed too bad for me to stay there for four months (Four months is the time an investigator is allowed, under anti-terrorism proclamation, to finish his investigation process and file a charge). Until such a time the suspect remains under detention in Maekelawi. His remarks about the possibility of staying up to four months in detention made me realize that circumstances are not as easy as I initially thought when I was leaving my home and my family.

This first investigator after exhausting his session (two hours), sent me back with the police who brought me to him. Handcuffed, I wondered where my next destination would be. However, after few minutes, when I was told to stop in a place which looks like a warehouse, by intuition, I knew I would be dumped in one of the cells. The police hurriedly unlocked the metal door of one cell, pushed and locked me in with the rest of the inmates. Perplexed by the situation, my eyes could not believe what I was seeing in the room. The 4 X 4-meter room was full of people to the extent that there was no space even to step one’s foot. The room which was good enough to accommodate 10 people, was occupied by 25 people. To make matters worse, the room has no window apart from one small opening at the top of the door; it was highly suffocated and poorly lighted. Right at the corner near the door there was a bucket and plastic bottles filled with urine. The smell coupled with the suffocation was indeed terrible and unbearable.  Being the last incoming person, I was allocated a small space right next to the door, literally speaking latrine to sleep.  Nevertheless, before I slept, the fellow detainees welcomed and informed me, among other things, that the cell we were detained was one of the most notorious section in the whole detention center, neck named “Siberia”. it was named Siberia by the inmates for its freezing cold. That was my first sleepless night in Chelema Bet (Dark room)/ Siberia cell No. 2.  

On the following day I learned from cell mates many things about Maekelawi, to mention but one the most terrifying was the likelihood of being vanished without a trace! Everybody in my cell, including myself, was a suspect allegedly involved in a terrorism act. This suggest that the likelihood of fabricated terrorism charges was inevitable. However, it was a bit shocking to me when I knew that some stayed for over six months in those cells without a formal charge.

24 hours after my arrest, I appeared in the first instance court to hear my case. My investigator explained to the court, rather to the fake court because it was not as such an independent court but an extension of the Federal police bureau, the reason of my arrest. I could not believe my own ears to hear what the officer had said precisely because what he presented was unfounded, fabricated allegations, and outright lies. That was, to me, a shocking and speechless moment! In a nutshell, however, I was suspected of terrorism; a high case allegation/charge in the land, punishable by death or life sentence in the worst case scenario.

Day after day I came to know that Maekelawi was a place for physical and psychological torcher. Once you are there in the hands of the merciless investigators, anything from loss of organ to death can happen to you and no one will stop it from happening or report it. This was so mainly because of the culture of impunity among security forces and police. Until the process of investigation is over, on average four months, suspected inmates are completely isolated from the outside world; exposed to physical and psychological torchers.  Human rights is not an issue at all. People are indeed treated not like human beings.  No dignity at all. 

Maekelawi is an incarceration center with a dire conditions of detention. Literally with no facility. To mention but few: no access to lawyer and family members. For instance, when I asked access to my family, ten days after my detention, I was told I had to confess first! inadequate and poor food, restrictions on access to daylight and toilets (access to the toilet sometimes depend on the whim of the police officer), extremely poor sanitary, limited access to medical treatments etc. Conditions are harsh and unbearable during investigations particularly with a politically motivated charges. In my case for example I was kept in a dark cell with no sunlight. when I was allowed for sunlight, chained alongside my cell mate, for 10 minutes in a day I could not see properly due to the fact that I had no access to sunlight for a long time.  I spent one months and two weeks in Maekelawi “Siberia” under such a harsh circumstance. Then after I moved to another cell nicknamed “Sheraton” where I stayed for another four months. It is named “Sheraton “by inmates because compared to “Siberia” it was by far better in terms of access to family and sunlight; Besides inmates from different cells (there were 12 cells) could meet and exchange views alongside the corridors or in any room/cell. The police brutality and harassment, however remained the same.

The worst part in Maekelawi was that every member/staff of the detention center, the Administration, the investigating officer, the guards etc… perceive a suspect like an enemy. If one happens to be in Maekelaw s/he is guilty unless proven otherwise and a guilty person does not deserve any respect in the minds of the crooked officer in Maekelawi.

Prior to my detention I had the perception that police investigators in general are professionals and as such apply their professional knowledge, skills and technics to extract the required information from the suspects during their investigation process. However, in Maekelawi this was not the case. Rather investigators use coercive methods including torture in order to extract information, statements or confession. In Maekelawi Ill-treatment is the order of the day. I am a living witness that many of my cell mates after interrogation were coming back completely exhausted/consumed not even able to walk and talk as the result of flogging, extended beating and physical exercise.  

Nevertheless, in my case bluffing, verbal abuse and threat, intimidation, prolonged stand, and psychological torcher were some of the technics utilized in their attempt to extract information from me. In deed they looked at me in open hostility and tried to belittle me hoping that I see myself as nobody. In general, the officers’ arrogance and ignorance is indescribable. What is annoying is, however, these interrogators were not read to listen to what I had to tell them. The only thing they wanted to hear from me was confession.

Having witnessed the extent of atrocities committed against detainees in Maekelawi in this 21st century, designed and executed by TPLF, I wondered what the Derg regime which is also condemn by TPLF for its human rights abuse/ inhuman act has done worse than them?  

Virtually all my fellow prisoners (majority from Oromo followed by Amhara), finally were made to plead guilty. They had to confess under duress. They could not endure the ceaseless brutal treatment and humiliating pressure.  Even those who were adamant in their stance for months, eventually had to surrendered and ended up telling their interrogators what they thought would please them or satisfy their demand. What is regrettable is, however, after confession the investigators re-write the script a fresh, edit it or change it completely to fit their demand and then pressure/force them to sign the papers without disclosing what they have written for their ultimate objective was to incriminate or implicate someone in alleged criminal activity. Just contemplate, somebody signs statements or confessions for crimes s/he did not commit and suffer the consequence!! In Maekelaw whether you like it or not you are compelled to sign the extracted information/papers regardless of its content. I signed mine which it’s content I didn’t now to date.

Signing the papers means that the process of your investigation is coming to an end. One knows for sure that sooner or later s/he will either be arraigned in the court and gets copy of his/her formal charges or will be released without formal charges. The latter was so in my case. Two weeks after I signed the papers, I was acquitted without even been arraigned in the court. I stayed over five months in Maekelewi (The notorious Ethiopian prison in the capital Addis) without trail. Though I was released without charges, to conceal their misdeeds, the authorities deported me, straight from my cell, to my country in the most disgraceful manner in 2017!!

I am writing this article on the occasion of my 2nd year release from Maekelawi to witness that Maekelawi was a prison facility of the past regime meant to humiliate not only Ethiopians who were opponent of the regime but also expats whose countries are perceived and labeled as enemies of the nation/Ethiopia.

Now we are witnessing that there is a positive change and the country is moving in the right direction. However, I hope that to redress past mistakes the current leadership should take concrete steps to hold responsible the perpetrators of this heinous crime. Accountability is highly indispensable to curb the culture of impunity. The rule of the law shall prevail over the law of the jungle.   

For further information the author of this article can be reached at




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