NAIROBI – Lawyers representing jailed Ethiopian opposition politicians say they are concerned for the lives of their clients, whose hunger strike has gone on for nearly a month and drawn international attention as they protest their treatment by the government.
“Four of them have continued with their hunger strike and their health is deteriorating quickly,” lawyer Tokuma Daba told The Associated Press, saying he last visited them on Monday. “Our concern now is for their lives. We are told by medics that they need a sophisticated medical treatment, which is lacking now. It is really concerning.”
The jailed politicians include media mogul-turned-politician Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane and Dejene Tafa. They were arrested along with at least 16 others following the killing of a renowned singer, Hachalu Hundessa, in June 2020. Amid outrage over the killing, violence targeting ethnic minorities claimed the lives of several dozen people, mainly in the Oromia region.
Some ethnic Oromos feel their quest for more democratic space and the freedom to choose their leaders has not been fulfilled since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. They accuse him of defaulting on some of his promises by arresting some politicians who returned to Ethiopia from abroad, including Jawar, after he assumed power.
The jailed politicians face charges including conspiring to dismantle the constitution by force and other terror-related offenses. They have rejected the charges as politically motivated.
The prisoners’ “treatment by the Ethiopian government is exacerbating a serious crisis, especially as their health deteriorates,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and current Biden administration nominee for foreign aid chief Samantha Power tweeted last week, calling it critical for the government to “change course before it is too late.”
The prisoners assert that their arrests were meant to deny them the chance to take part in Ethiopia’s upcoming national election in June. On Tuesday, Ethiopia’s election board made it clear that politicians behind bars will not be able to present themselves as candidates.
Tokuma said his clients are conducting a hunger strike for several reasons including protesting the harassment and arrests of their supporters and family members. His clients also seek the release of all political prisoners.
The striking prisoners have rejected being treated in government-owned hospitals, preferring a private hospital. Last week Ethiopia’s ambassador to the U.S., Fitsum Arega, tweeted that the offer to treat them at the “Ethiopian equivalent of Walter Reed” National Military Medical Center still stands.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Ethiopia ruled that the prisoners shall receive medical treatment from a private hospital but that the treatment should take place inside the Kaliti prison where they are held.
“Imagine physicians carrying X-rays, oxygen tanks and ICU equipment and conducting treatment inside a prison cell or in an open field,” said another lawyer for the defendants, Tuli Bayissa. “This decision amounts to a death penalty. It’s no less harsh than that.”
Earlier this month, the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, said of the striking prisoners that “very close supervision is required to prevent any grave threat to their health and life and that reasonably justified demands of the prisoners must be addressed.”
Quoting Kaliti prison officials, the commission said “most of the demands listed as reasons for the hunger strike are beyond the remit of the administration. And the prison administration does not mistreat the prisoners’ visitors.”
On Thursday, the commission called on authorities to immediately release Mohammed Deksiso, a graduate student who shouted “Release Jawar Mohammed” and “Justice for Hachalu Hundessa” during a graduation ceremony on Feb. 13 at Jimma University in the Oromia region. He has been in detention despite a local court's ruling that he should be released on bail.
“The increasing tendency to disregard court decisions within the Oromia region is deeply concerning and needs a solution,” Bekele said in an email sent to journalists.
Henok Gabissa, a former president of the Oromo Studies Association and an observer of Ethiopian politics, said the situation in the Oromia region is “terrible” and asserted that Abiy’s administration is deterring Oromo politicians.
“Oromo opposition parties have more legitimacy than Abiy’s administration. The public in the region widely support the prisoners and their demands,” he said.
In a social media post on Wednesday, Abiy stated the “clear role of government is to ensure that peaceful, free and fair elections take place in this highly anticipated round." He added “we established a defining line to not mix government and party work.”
Some opposition parties in Ethiopia are already alleging difficulties in preparing for the election such as harassment, arrests and even the killing of some of their members.