Letter from an Ethiopian prison – Natnael Feleke – zone 9 blogger asks the US secretary of state to stop supporting the regime
Dear John Kerry,
I first came to know about you back in 2004, during the US presidential election, when you were running for office against George Bush. At just 17 years old I knew little about US politics – or politics in general – but I discussed the campaigns with my schoolmates.
A year later, the historic 2005 Ethiopian national election took place. This election differed from previous votes in that the lead up to it was mostly democratic. This left many Ethiopians hoping they would witness the first elected change of government in the country’s history. But it was not to be.
After the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front realised they couldn’t win the election without rigging the vote, the true face of the regime emerged.
After polling day, we saw civilian bloodshed, and the arrest of thousands – including journalists and opposition leaders.
I was only young then, but the election gave me my first real experience of politics. It also left me with a strong desire to follow the repressive situation that was unfolding in Ethiopia.
It was this interest and commitment that led my friends and I to form the bloggers’ and pro-democracy activist group we called Zone 9.
The birth of Zone 9
All nine members of the blogging group are young and passionate about encouraging Ethiopia’s democracy.
We aimed to create a platform for Ethiopian youth to discuss political, economic and social issues when we launched our blog, with the motto, “we blog because we care”.
Although our arrest came two years after launching, our site was blocked in Ethiopia early on, but we continued to share our views via social media.
Finally, the regime took drastic measures: in April 2014 they arrested six members of Zone9, and three other journalists too.
We are now facing between eight and 18 years imprisonment.
This hasn’t come as a surprise. Whenever Ethiopians exercise their constitutional rights to free expression, the regime resorts to its security apparatus to silence them.
My charges are tied up with our meeting back in 2013. We met in Addis Ababa University: the minister of foreign affairs Tedros Adhanom invited me and a couple of others for a discussion, in which I raised my concerns about the regime’s tactics to push young citizens away from participating in politics.
I highlighted the negative impact this was having on the political sphere. I told you that I was risking a lot merely by expressing my thoughts freely. At that time, my arrest was only an abstract possibility.
The regime continues to silence any form of dissent using the strict anti-terrorism proclamation.
Since the 2005 Ethiopian election the government have prosecuted more than 200 people – journalists, dissidents and activists – and has shut down many weekly magazines and newspapers, sending most journalists into exile.
In the last eight months alone 17 journalists have been forced to flee the country.
This has made it nearly impossible for citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.
It is quite common for the federal police and the national intelligence and security service (Niss) to use force to solicit confessions from suspects. My friends and I fell victim to this type of mistreatment at the police crime investigation sector, commonly known as Maekelawi.
The abuses they are reported to have committed there include beatings with electric wire, forcing heavy physical exercise, lengthy interrogations with no rest, and keeping people in solitary confinement until suspects agree to incriminate themselves, or others. The mistreatment is more extreme under Niss.
My fellow bloggers and I spent the first 85 days of our arrest at the police station. We were given a 20-minute toilet break twice a day. In case of emergency, we found an understanding officer, or a bucket.
The rooms were crowded, filled with suspects from all over the country. We slept and ate in the little space available.
The suffocation was sometimes unbearable.
Imprisoned blogger Natnael Feleke. Photograph: Endalk Chala/Global Voices
Halt the millions
The investigation has so far been a farce.
I have been, for instance, repeatedly asked what kind of relationship I had with you, and why I was invited to ask a question on the BBC’s Hardtalk program, hosted by Zeinab Bedawi, when it was filmed in Addis Ababa in May 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the African Union.
But to be honest, the amount of time I will be spending in prison is not the most pressing issue on my mind right now. Rather, I am worried about what will happen unless the international community, and specifically your government, assumes a firm stance on Ethiopia, demands progress with democratisation, and halts the millions of dollars pouring the regime’s way.
Having said this, I want to assure you that I understand the question of liberty and democracy in Ethiopia should be primarily answered by Ethiopians ourselves.
Ultimately, it is the “willingness to suffer and sacrifice [for our cause]”, in the words of Nelson Mandela, that will determine our fate.