The Case of Qilinto Fire in the Past Year, my Testimony – Befeqadu Z. Hailu

Befeqadu Z. Hailu

Abraham used to visit us, my colleague Atnafu Berhane of Zone 9 Blogging Collective and myself, every Saturday while we were jailed in Qilinto prison. His workplace was near to the prison compound. Just a year ago, on a Saturday morning, September 3, 2016, he called me and told me that he was looking at a huge dark smoke cloud coming up from Qilinto prison compound and was hearing explosion sounds which he was not sure if they were gunshots or not. Later that day, news of the fire at the High-Security prison hit social media. The following days were full of confusion.  The cause of the fire, the number of causalities and the reasons for the gunshots remained unconfirmed. The surviving prisoners were distributed to Zeway and Shoarobit federal prisons. Each of the prisons is more than 100 kilometers away from Addis Ababa, in Oromia and Amhara regional states, respectively.

I went to both prisons to see prisoners who I knew personally from when I was in prison. There was extremely restricted access to the prisoners; however, I’ve had the chance to meet a few of them. Among those, I was allowed to visit in Zeway was Misbah Kedir. Misbah was my ‘Meqdus’ (someone with whom one shares a meal with, in prison customs) while I was in Qilinto. He looked very well despite the trauma of the tragic incident he survived. The others I visited in Shoarobit were in much worse condition; they were wearing shorts but no shoes and seemed to be very distracted. Later, I would learn the prisoners who were sent to Shoarobit were those who had been severely tortured in the name of interrogation to know who burnt the prison and why. Some prisoners who were sent to Zeway were relocated to Shoarobi. Among these, Misbah and Fikremariam (former member of Blue party convicted for terrorism), were included.

While we were confused about what was happening of Qilint prisoners, countrywide anti-government protests were escalating. In the meantime, official reports declared that the death of 23 prisoners, including two killed by gunshot, was due to “attempting to escape prison”. An independent organization, Ethiopian Human Rights Project (EHRP), contested the number of deaths in another report released later. EHRP’s report confirmed the death of 67 prisoners; and also that 45 of them were shot down by live bullets. Almost all the prisoners I talked to agree with the latter report even though they are not sure about the exact number of casualties.

The government of Ethiopia then declared a state of emergency, that would last for 10 months, to suppress growing protests in the country. I, myself, was arrested in November 2016 and was taken away to a military training camp for indoctrination. When I was released after 40 days, without being formally charged, I heard many stories including new charges against some Qilinto prisoners ‘suspected to conspire behind’ the fire. Thirty-eight prisoners were charged with terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP); another 121 prisoners were also charged with first-degree murder. Unfortunately, I know many defendants on both charges. My former inmates, close friends and my ‘Meqdus’ Misbah Kedir were among those charged under the ATP. In this piece of writing, to keep the story short, I will only write about those who are charged under the ATP.

‘Perpetrators’ in Absentia

I was shocked when I learned that some of the prisoners charged were being held in other prisons when Qilinto caught fire. The first defendant in the ATP charge is Masresha Setie, a defected comrade of the Ethiopian national defense air force division who had taken part in the Ethiopia’s war on terror against Al-Shabab.  He was arrested and charged with “being member” to ‘Ginbot 7’ (an outlawed armed group) and was then convicted and sentenced to 10 years of severe imprisonment in Qilinto. By the time the fire broke out in Qilinto, he was locked in a separate confinement prison room where the prominent politician Bekele Gerba and others were held. With them, there was also another defendant, Abebe Urgessa, who was also charged under the ATP following Qilinto Fire. Abebe was one of the first students charged in relation to Oromo students protests in 2014 in Haromaya University. He was charged under the ATP and convicted to 15 years of severe imprisonment. Since these two defendants were locked in the confinement room from the beginning to the end of the blaze, it is obvious that they had nothing to do with the fire break out that day.

My shock was exacerbated when I had learned about others charged who were not even around Qilinto prison on that fateful day. Dr. Fikru Maru is one of them. Dr. Fikru is a cardiologist who lived in Sweden for more than three decades before bringing his experience and investment to the first private cardiac hospital – Addis Cardiac Hospital in 2007. He was first arrested suspected of participating in “corruption” which he was acquitted of after four years of a lengthy court proceeding. Unfortunately, a few months before his acquittal he was charged in relation to “conspiring to set Qilinto prison on fire”. Dr. Fikru Maru was in Kality Prison Hospital having a surgery when Qilinto was ablaze.

More for the shock, Dr. Fikru’s former inmate in Qilinto prison in the 4th room of Zone 2, Fikiremariam Asmamaw, was also charged in the same case. Fikiremariam was transported to Zeway prison two weeks before the Qilinto fire. He was sent to Zeway from Qilinto because he was convicted of being a “member” to ‘Ginbot 7’. Fikiremariam used to be a well-known member of the locally registered political party, Blue Party, before, allegedly, “he gave up on the deliberation of peaceful means of political struggle in Ethiopia” and move to join the rebel group.

‘Freed’ but Jailed

Dr. Fikru Maru has been acquitted of his previous charges, but he remained in prison because of the new charges in relation to Qilinto Fire. He would have never been charged with the latter had he not been jailed due to the dropped charges. Dr. Fikru, however, is not the only victim. Misbah Kedir and Agbaw Setegn were acquitted of their respective previous charges just after they were charged in relation to Qilinto fire. Agbaw is also a Blue Party member and former parliamentarian who was ‘suspected’ of having a connection to ‘Ginbot Sebat’ which he hadn’t. Even though he is now acquitted of the previous charge against him by the Federal Prosecutor, he remains in jail because of this new charge.

Agbaw repeatedly reported to the court that he was being subjected to continuous abuse of his human rights. According to his statement, Agbaw was physically intimidated in prison whenever there was political unrest in the neighborhood where he used to be a campaigner for his political party, formerly UDJ and now the Blue Party. North Gonder, where Agbaw is from, is where the government in Ethiopia is facing strong resistance, especially in recent years. Similar to Dr. Fikru and Agbaw, Mishba Kedir was acquitted of his previous charges unrelated to politics. Now, these three [as well as those of their co-defendants about whom I don’t have updated info] must remain in jail for a charge that they would never have been suspected of, had they not been charged with their previous ‘bogus charges’ in the first place.

‘Tortured to Self-incriminate’

Most of the defendants in this charge have suffered torture in Shoarobit prison. Those who were sent to Zeway were later brought to Shoarobit for interrogation that includes torture. I’ve spoken to a number of defendants about how they ended up confessing that ‘the fire was a result of their conspiracy’. They told me how barbaric the interrogation process was. (I have attached pictorial representation of how the torture was done as I have learned from four of the defendants.) The only way for them to survive the torture was to confess what they hadn’t done. During interrogation process, the ‘suspects’ were handcuffed and hung up with it. Their thumbs were also tied tightly together with thin fabrics to make the pain worse. One of their legs was tied up with a rope so that their feet soles could be flogged with an electric cable. Misbah told me he collapsed multiple times during a single interrogation. Almost half of the defendants in this charge were in Qilinto prison due to previous charges under the ATP; these include those ‘suspected’ of affiliation with Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), another outlawed political group in Ethiopia, Ginbot 7 and also Muslims who protested “government interference in religious affairs”.

Misbah was originally charged with non-political charges of which he was acquitted; but, now, his charges are political because he befriended political prisoners in jail. He was also insulted due to his ethnic background, Guraghe, and interrogators in Shoarobit accused of him to be affiliated of ‘Ginbot 7’ whose chairperson is from the same ethnic origin.

The defendants raised the human rights violations they were subjected to during the court hearing of their case. The 19th bench of the federal high court ordered the state-run Ethiopia Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate the complaints. However, EHRC claimed to the court that it was not able to confirm the violations even though the prisoners showed investigators the scars on their wrists and legs. EHRC, in its letter to the Court, also mentioned that the prison administrators denied the violations and the victims failed to name the individuals who tortured them. The prisoners had no chance to recognize the perpetrators by name.



What’s the Charge About?

The general claim of the charge is that these defendants planned the fire beginning the previous April before Qilinto was set on fire. The charge further claimed that the defendants ‘incited a riot and disturbance by force through convening and organizing inmates as recruits to the terror organizations, namely Ginbot 7, OLF and Al-Shabab’. The claim is that Masresha Setie recruited members to Ginbot 7 while the second defendant Wolde Motuma did the same to OLF. Dr. Fikru Maru and Misbah Kedir are accused of supporting this ‘clandestine’ recruitment with financial assistance.

The defendants I have spoken with explained to me that the charges are definitely political, and they were simply labeling affiliations to the outlawed groups based the defendants’ backgrounds or earlier charges. According to these defendants’ explanations, the Oromos are accused of being recruited to join OLF whereas those who were previously charged in relation to the “Muslims movement” were accused of planning to join Al-Shabab. The rest were charged in relation to Ginbot 7. However, it is extremely easy to disbelief the charges of Federal Prosecutor after hearing detailed stories of how the fire broke out in the prison.

Why ‘do Prisoners Set the Prison on Fire’?

Was it prisoners who set the prison on fire? “Yes!”

This is not my answer; it is what these defendants are saying to Court. In fact, all 38 of the ATP charge defendants do not claim that they lit the fire, nor does the Federal Prosecutor. However, prisoners whose voice has no listener started burning their uniforms in the Zone 2 of Qilinto to protest the prohibition of cooked food that relatives of prisoners used to bring them. Ethiopian prisons prepare food for their prisoners. But, the taste makes it hardly edible. The prison admins know this well and typically allow relatives of prisoners to bring prisoners food. But, suddenly three days before the Qilinto Fire, prison admin members declared an outbreak of “cholera epidemic and ruled no prisoner can receive ‘cooked food’” from outside. The prisoners protested it saying, “if we’re going to contract cholera, it is from the food that is prepared in the filthy prison kitchen, not from the food our relatives prepare us cleanly at home and bring us here.” None of Federal Prosecutor witnesses heard so far could say if the epidemic really happened beyond the officials’ words.

In less than a week after the prohibition of cooked food, the prisoners rioted. They took off their uniforms and set them on fire. It was in Zone 2 that the fire started, but Zone 3 and 1 followed shortly after. The fire spread to the level where “Zone 2 turned dark out of the smoke,” one of Prosecutor’s witnesses told the court; he also told the Court that he saw inmates shot down. Other prisoners reported the same. But, prison guards did not allow prisoners to leave their Zones out of fear they would escape. Furthermore, Federal Police that raided the compound immediately after the prison caught fire, fired tear gas and live ammunition “to stop escaping”. Most of the defendants claim that the number of lives lost in live bullets was more than those who were burned and suffocated by the smoke. Prison admin members claimed the fire to be the main cause for casualties. Even the state-funded EHRC, though known to justify officials’ violations of human rights, later admitted that the fire was caused by the protest and police used disproportionate force and recommended that responsible bodies be held accountable. However, no one other than the prisoners is under trial and the defendants are accused of being responsible for all lives lost on that fateful day.

In a further attempt to understand what happened, I have spoken with other prisoners who were arrested who are now released. They told me that the denial of “cooked food” access from visitors is only an immediate cause of the anger. The prisoners are suffering day after day and they were in search of a cause to riot. They used to be allowed to watch satellite TV shows to pass the time until it was cut. Prohibitions in the prison increased as anti-government protests increased outside the prison compound. That frustration, they said, was the real reason behind all the anger.

‘Astechi’: Prosecutor’s Witnesses

It is important to understand the prosecution’s witnesses to understand how the trial is going on. ‘Astechi’ is the ugliest name one can be called in Ethiopian prisons. One may have this name only if “s/he reports prisoners’ everyday activities to prison admin”. Prisoners smuggle letters and prison memoirs in and out of prison. They further smuggle prohibited books with political content as well as cigarettes. ‘Astechis’, if they know about it, will report it to prison admins. Prison admins usually respond with physical measures; they torture those caught ‘red handed’ doing one of these ‘prohibited’ activities. Prohibited activities often surpass what is prohibited by law. To discuss matters, especially political matters, can get you accused of “forming a prison escape group”.  For this, you will be tortured and sent to a confinement room. ‘Astechis’ may also falsely report prohibited activities due to personal disagreements.

These ‘Astechis’ receive fair treatment from prison admins in return for reporting on others. However, they are usually discriminated against by the majority of the prisoners once they are identified. Now, in the trial of Qilinto fire case, the Federal Prosecutor’s witnesses are almost all ‘Astechis’. So far more than two dozen of the 83 prosecution witnesses have been heard. None of them could say they saw the direct involvement of each of the defendants in the charges they are accused of. However, what the Prosecutor wanted to prove to the court is that the defendants planned the ‘chaos to escape prison and join terrorist groups’ to help the growing anti-government protests.

It is important to understand that ‘Astechis’ once they choose to side with the prison admin, remain in disagreement with most prisoners. This often results in a refusal to befriend ‘Astechis’. Therefore, they only feel protected by tightening their relationship with the prison admin and guards. However, this also means they tend to lack information because everyone keeps secrets away from them once they are identified as ‘Astechis’. This is, partly, why it is hard to believe their testimony at court in which they claimed to have seen and heard plans of prison escape. At times, ‘Astechis’ will give false reports to prison admin in order to be considered important by them. It seems that the witnesses are doing the same before the court in the trial of those defendants now. Most witnesses who have been heard have testified as witnesses against more than one individual. Their claims could only be valid if they were in more than one place at a time. They also claimed to have overheard meetings in either Amharic or Afaan Oromo languages and said they saw tens of thousands of birr exchanged among defendants. This is not possible to believe for anyone who knows how Qilinto prison functions.

The Qilinto Structure and Function

Three of Qilinto zones have 8 rooms each. Qilinto has two other recently added zones with only two rooms each. But, it was in the three larger zones that the victims of the fire were held in custody. Each of the three zones contains close to one thousand prisoners and each room contains up to 120 inmates. Each zone is too dense with prisoners to do the group organizing, confidential planning, and execution of actions that the defendants are accused of doing in ‘clandestine’. The ‘Astechis’ report every little incident they see so it would have been easily controlled by the brutal measures of prison admin, had the defendants attempted to plan such a big conspiracy.

Qilinto was so populated with prisoners that there were hardly any places to conduct secret meetings. In addition, no one is allowed to keep more than 200 birr and prison guards conduct a weekly search. To have thousands of birr, as the Federal Prosecutor’s witnesses claimed, and to see that amount exchanged cannot be true. Furthermore, prosecution witnesses made statements that contradict the structure and functionality of Qilinto prison, to the amusement of the defendants and everyone who knows the prison. However, these contradictions call into question the moral standard of the witnesses. One of the witnesses, for example, said he was hiding in “three meters deep ditch” in Qilinto to save himself from being attacked by other prisoners on the day of the fire. However, the ditch in Qilinto is only 50 centimeters deep and it cannot hide a person. (Below, I have tried to put a diagram that shows the structure of a zone in Qilinto and also the arrangement of beds in a room to help people who are following the Qilinto fire trial.)



It is now a year since Qilinto caught fire. I have written, what I have called ‘my testimony’ above because I thought it is important to make the complicated court case clear to the people who are following it. This, I hope, will make the real cause of the fire clear, the motivation of the charges, how the defendants were forced to confess on self-incriminating things, the trustworthiness of federal prosecutor’s witnesses and, finally, how densely populated is a Qilinto prison zone to plan what is listed in the Federal Prosecutor’s charges. The trial is still continued. Most of Prosecutor’s witnesses are not yet heard. Anybody following this case should make the above-mentioned facts into consideration to have the clear picture of what is going on. To hope or not to hope on the rule of law and judiciary system of the country, following this case with these facts in mind really matters.


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