Is the Ethiopian justice system on the right path of reform?

8 mins read

An infamous prison was closed and there are bids to prosecute officials who abused power, but activists remain cautious.

by Elias Gebreselassie
Maekelawi prison, known for torture, stopped being operational last year and was recently opened to the public to demonstrate positive reforms to the justice system [Michael Tewelde/Al Jazeera]

Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, In April 2014, Abel Wabella, a social media activist who founded Addis Zeybe, an online news outlet, was arrested by Ethiopian security forces and jailed in Maekelawi, an infamous prison in the centre of Addis Ababa.

His arrest came during a crackdown on journalists and the opposition. Accused of “terrorism” and disturbing law and order – charges he denied – he would go on to spent 84 days there, of his almost 18-month sentence.

Maekelawi was known for torture and repression. Former inmates have said they were shackled in solitary confinement, beaten with gun butts and electric wires, and that the cells underground were so cold that they were known as “Siberia”.

Earlier this month, about five years after his ordeal, Wabella stepped back inside the prison’s gates, this time as a visitor.

Maekelawi, which stopped being operational last year, was opened for four days to the public, in an attempt to showcase reforms to the justice system under Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, which took power in April 2018.

“There are some good beginnings in reforming Ethiopia’s justice system, the opening of Maekelawi to the public being one of them,” said Wabella. “But, Maekelawi is one single building, the reform should be across all sectors of the justice system.”

Wabella also criticised the makeover of Maekelawi; cell walls had been painted to cover former prisoners’ writings and paintings.

Wabella said it should have been preserved just as it was, like a crime scene.

“It should be put as a permanent exhibition and all its history must be recorded properly, and all the buildings inside the compound must be left for this purpose,” he said.

“Ethiopia needs systematic changes to successfully impact justice reform. It was a good gesture to open Maekelawi, but there’s no guarantee the change is irreversible if Ethiopia’s Attorney General Office, in particular, continues to be politicised.”

In June, more than a year since Ahmed came to power, rights groups issued concern as several activists, journalists and politicians were arrested – and as a feared 2009 anti-terror law to prosecute suspects was still being used, following the killings of high-ranking government officials and military figures.

“These measures have overshadowed some positive developments, such as the amendment of the previously restrictive 2008 Civil Society law, the ongoing drafting of new anti-terror legislation and [reduced] use of torture to extract confessions from prisoners,” said Wabella.

Justice reform in Ethiopia between scepticism and hope
A visitor peers over the small window of a Maekelawi prison cell [Michael Tewelde/Al Jazeera]

Zinabu Tunu, spokesperson at the office of the Federal Attorney General, told Al Jazeera that the arrests in June were justified given the significance of the crime.

“There is no tendency for rollback of reforms,” he said. “Previously, many were tortured, imprisoned or exiled for their point of view, while others had opted to join an armed struggle to demand their rights. All these have been pardoned under an amnesty law and previously banned voices are starting to be heard.”

Senior officials who oversaw human rights abuses will be held accountable, he promised.

In December last year, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster aired a documentary focusing on acts of torture by security services over the years. While rights groups have praised the increased openness under Prime Minister Ahmed, they have warned against “trial by media” and underlined defendants’ right to a fair trial.

Tunu defended the documentary, however, citing a need to come clean on the crimes committed by government officials and departments.

Calls for institutional change

Bizuayehu Wondimu, a veteran member of Ethiopia’s oldest human rights NGO, the Human Rights Council (HRC), cautiously welcomed the recent attempts at reforming the justice system, acknowledging that significant change cannot take place overnight.

Wondimu claimed HRC was under pressure from the Ethiopian government for years and had its bank account suspended for “violating” a now-repealed law that had required 90 percent of funding for human rights organisations to come from local sources.

Now, he said, HRC is able to operate more independently.

“I have also seen the governmental Human Rights Commission be more forthcoming to investigate alleged human rights abuses and judges trying to be bolder in their court proceedings,” said Wondimu. 

However, Wondimu said change is not yet institutionalised.

“Although I have seen a decrease in [the rate of] physical assault on prisoners by prison staff, the expansive use of the anti-terror law and the practice of putting prisoners in dark cells and solitary confinement concerns me,” he said.

Wondimu called for the police recruitment process to be improved and said officers should be better trained in how to protect human rights in terms of the amount of force they used on suspects.

Recently, several videos depicting instances of police brutality led to outrage. 

Wondimu was also concerned by the increased military presence to control unrest in various parts of Ethiopia, a practice which he said should be left to police.

For his part, Wabella said that despite the best will, larger issues at play could derail the current reform efforts.

“One of the main problems for Ethiopia for the last decade has been the ‘ethnicisation’ of politics. Many people in the government … are more accountable to their ethnicity than the law of the land, that pattern hasn’t changed.

“You see some prominent faces, like former politician and prisoner Birtukan Mideksa leading the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), and another former prisoner, Daniel Bekele, heading the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. But they will not have enough capacity to do what they want, if the ethnicisation of politics and the justice system doesn’t stop.”



  1. you were one of the victims of debtera and amahara priests

    amhara priests and bishops are known to worship Devil and reciting his(devil) homily and greetings . Amhara is known to propagate hate, commit genocide aginst minorities and also spyng for the western world, your masters .

    We donot acknowledge the award given to this mealy-mothed demagogue arab messenger , Abiy Ahled; He is an amhara in disguise. Amhara elites like him are also advocting homosexuality through thier priests. Go and ask ethiopian police that they will tell you how many cases they have been dealing with. Cases related to rape and abuse by amhara debteras and priests . They do sell tabot and artifacts like you guys and flee to US, canda and UK like you
    I bet if you can renounce this case .

    People who are politically correct by the standard set up by UN and oether western world countries are not usually eligible to be socially and ethically correct before the eyes of the public.

    Killing people and producing many refugees can be an assest before UN and can also be rewarded if it is committed by western world . BUt, if an african leader bombed a refugee camp , it can be an object of backlash and renouced by UN as a war crime.

    So, world is now commting the lesser evil to gain profit and help its own citizens who are in need of petrol and water.

    Amhara, like the former colonial masters telling KImant and Agew ” YOu(agew and Kimant) are not capaable of governing yourself and we will govern and supervise and taking control of your assests as you are minorities” This was that colonial master was unttering for centuries in Africa and latin america.

  2. the obeserver you are dedeb neftegna son of murderers

    are you bragging just because you hold a fke ragged piece of paper ? just use it in the WC when you excrete or discharge your 3 meters long stool .

    your priests are killer, tabot seller and raper including those businessmen mahibrekidusan

  3. our fake observer neftegna amhara

    are you sharing with us your classified info you got by offering your wife to rapers or killers of alltime

    are you a snooper ?

    all elite neftegna amhara sould be jailed . They are bigots and killers ordering the massacre of Kimant, Agew and other innocent people . They do sponsor mercenaries sending financial support while dismantling the peace and order backhome at the best of thier ability. They are selling classified info to foreigners working for foreign intelligence and other enemies of a peaceful people

  4. Ittu Aba Farda
    Diaspora D stand for devil or demon , Dooms day, many words starting with D have mostly negative connotation. Many of disporas I met are evil than amhara I know back home.
    life under western world being illtreated and abused make them demons and jealous than that lived back home in thier tiny village .Ethiopians are asddist people they feel excited by destrying the life of thier fellowmen while they are in the same boat being unable to change thier own life.
    Religious propaganda is not able to change the ethical life of ethiopian other than parcticing tradtional religious rituals. limadawi dirgit. Funny story of ethiopians particularly amharas wouldbe pious and akraari kristian.

    Many are spying on thier fellow brother and sis to spoil his or her future. Some ordder the killing of innocent people living in US and Europe. Ethiopians are cursed and evilmen. I donot belive at in teh socalled ethiipianism. It is a border and indentity created by those who have a thirst for power .

    God donot create a country . It is we who divide among ourselves. We set rules to criminalize and abuse and make money. THe law inforcement is just protecting those who have power and demogogues we have seen it back home and outside.
    chauvinist oromo are you decising our fate hiding yourself being in the US appartments given to you due to your asylum claim. What a contemptible person you are ? You are a worthless and contemptible person. YOu got a borrowed nationality from western world and manage to decide the fate of future generation to come.

    I also remember you saying “I will call to FBI” are you the one who spying on people living peacefully ??

    WE donot need to islamitize ethiopia which plainly appears to be your project.

    You are all here bigots who are resposible for the massacre of innocent people by spreading hate and revengeful message .




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