One cellblock in the Ma’ekelawi prison in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is known as the Dark House. Its chilly, dank cells are underground, including four pitch-black cells too narrow for inmates to sit or stretch their arms or legs.
It has a second nickname: Siberia.
Ma’ekelawi is one of Ethiopia’s most notorious prisons, where dissidents, journalists, bloggers and protesters have been held for speaking out. According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, political prisoners and others have been tortured in Ma’ekelawi through beatings, prolonged stress positions and exposure to severe cold.
The government has always denied the allegations. But on Wednesday, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, stunned local activists and international human rights observers when he announced that the government would release all political prisoners and turn the Ma’ekelawi prison into a museum.
Desalegn’s announcement was momentous because it marked the first time the government has admitted to holding political prisoners, often referring to them as criminals or terrorists in the past.
It seemed too good to be true, and many immediately doubted how sweeping the reform may turn out to be.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” said Felix Horne, a Human Rights Watch expert on Ethiopia. “For many, Ma’ekelawi is a symbol of the abusive nature of the security forces. It’s hard to imagine a museum that could take place that would not be a propaganda effort against the previous government.”
Ethiopia’s government already has established another museum in Addis Ababa — the Red Terror Martyrs Museum — which exposes the horrors of the torture carried out in 17 years of the communist Derg administration before it was overthrown in 1991, giving way to the current government.
The museum’s slogan: “Never ever again.”
Rights groups have been exposing the torture of political prisoners in Ma’ekelawi and other Ethiopian prisons since the 1990s.
Desalegn said the measure was designed to create a space for national dialogue and consensus, according to the Addis Standard magazine.
“Politicians currently under prosecution and those previously sentenced will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” Desalegn said at a news conference. He said another detention center would be built to parliament’s human rights guidelines and international standards.
But the prime minister offered no time frame nor any indication of how many would be released. And he left open a major question: Will the new leniency encompass only a handful of prominent jailed politicians, such as opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Merera Gudina, or the many thousands arrested for exercising their political views or doing their jobs?
Like many, Horne suspects that change, when it comes, will be limited.
“Looking at their past behavior, it seems that it will likely not be as broad as people think it should be,” he said. “What needs to happen is that torture across the country needs to stop and the government needs to make a clear announcement that it will hold security officials responsible for abuses.”
One prominent activist, Blena Sahilu, questioned in a tweet how serious the government’s announcement was.
Almost as soon as the announcement was made, there were reports in Ethiopia that the prime minister’s office had begun to retreat on its admission that there were political prisoners in its jails.
The government of Ethiopia is a closed, opaque and authoritarian organization, which jails and harasses local journalists and bloggers and denies foreign journalists access to report on protests that have wracked the country in recent years or on a severe hunger emergency caused by the worst drought in half a century.
The government does not tolerate demonstrations. Security forces killed at least 800 protesters in 2015 and 2016, according to Amnesty International. The protests were initially sparked in 2015 by the expansion of a municipal boundary in the Oromia region, the nation’s largest, with farmers afraid they would be forced off their land. But thousands later took part in protests against the government.
According to Amnesty International, authorities used torture and arbitrary arrests to crush the protests, with more than 11,000 demonstrators arrested and detained. The heavy-handed actions led to tensions in the governing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, which might explain the timing of the move to release prisoners. Ethiopia has also been under intense international pressure to do so.
Then-U.S. President Obama was criticized by some for visiting Ethiopia in 2015, given its poor record on human rights. However the nation is a staunch U.S. ally in the counter-terrorism battle in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia released five jailed journalists and bloggers just weeks before Obama arrived. But thousands more dissidents would later be arrested.
The Addis Standard, an independent local magazine, called for the closure of the Ma’ekelawi prison in a June 2016 editorial, saying: “It is, by any definition, a state-run ‘Torture Chamber’ built by an extinct repressive government but preserved and run by a government which proclaims itself ‘democratic.’”
The editorial added that the prison was, above all, “a symbol of a regime that acts contrary to the values, principles, and rules of the constitution it championed.”
Some former prisoners cited in the 2013 Human Rights Watch report recalled being suspended from their wrists with their toes barely reaching the ground, or being bent with their hands tied to their feet. Some were beaten on the soles of their feet or doused with cold water and whipped.
Many political prisoners were arrested under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, used to stifle dissent and to hold them for extended periods without trial.
Amnesty International spokesman Fisseha Tekle said the release of political prisoners was long overdue and called on the government to move swiftly.
“Today’s announcement could signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia. For prisoners who have spent years incarcerated on politically motivated and trumped-up charges, this is long overdue.