Ethiopia's government has fired five prison officials as it confronts allegations of torture and other abuses of inmates as part of a wave of reforms. Among those fired is the federal prison chief who until recently defended the treatment of inmates as "fair."
The firings came ahead of a new Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday that documents widespread arbitrary detention, torture, rape and humiliation over several years in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region. It urges new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to investigate the "horrific" situation.
Abiy has admitted that security forces have tortured people but has yet to "tackle Ethiopia's culture of impunity and ensure accountability," said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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Ethiopian government officials were not immediately available for comment. State television in recent days has broadcast interviews with inmates who alleged rights violations against them.
"I was kept in solitary confinement in complete darkness for most of my detention," one former prisoner who was held for three years told Human Rights Watch. "I was only taken out at night for torture. They did many things to me - they electrocuted my testicles, they tied wire around them and they put a plastic bag with chili powder over my head. I often had a gag tied in my mouth so I wouldn't scream too much."
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The Human Rights Watch report says the abuses occurred in a prison called Jail Ogaden and that the prison's security forces, including the Somali region's notorious paramilitary force, the Liyu police, are implicated. The unit reports to the Somali region president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, the report says, urging regional leaders to hold security forces accountable.
While the report focuses on a single region, Human Rights Watch said torture is a serious problem throughout Ethiopia and it regularly receives allegations of abusive interrogations countrywide. The report describes a brutal pattern of abuses with little access to medical care, family, lawyers or even food.
Most of the detainees were suspected of having links to the armed Ogaden National Liberation Front, one of three armed groups that were removed from Ethiopia's terror list this week.