You are currently viewing Analysis: Amid allegations of extrajudicial killings, more than 200 Tigrayan ex-ENDF soldiers languish in prison, families cry out for justice

Analysis: Amid allegations of extrajudicial killings, more than 200 Tigrayan ex-ENDF soldiers languish in prison, families cry out for justice

Blurred image of Ethiopian soldiers (Photo: BBC/AFP)

Addis Abeba – The two-year war in the Tigray region has not only left physical scars but has also caused deep emotional wounds for countless families in the area. Letay Asfaw, a mother grieving for her two sons—one imprisoned and the other lost forever—is one such case.

“My son, Tewolde, was not only a courageous soldier for his country but also a beacon of hope for our family. However, since his arrest, darkness has engulfed us. We stand alone, burdened by his imprisonment and the devastating loss of his younger brother,” Letay, who resides in Adwa town, in central Tigray zone, told Addis Standard.

She continued, “While my heart aches for Tewolde’s captivity, the loss of my younger son, who succumbed to illness, extinguished the last flicker of hope. His life was tragically cut short due to a lack of medicine amid the war.”

Tewolde, a colonel detained in Addis Abeba since November 2020, is among thousands of Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces who were arrested shortly after the two-year war between Tigrayan forces, and the Ethiopian army began. 

The arrest was part of wider war-time government crackdown against Tigrayan civilians who were arbitrarily rounded up and detained in the capital Addis Abeba and elsewhere in the country as documented by rights groups.  

According to a letter sent to the Ethiopian Ministry of Defense in late January 2024, signed by Lt. Gen. Tadese Werede, Vice President of the Tigray Interim Administration, 220 Tigrayan ex-soldiers remain incarcerated, after being convicted in a military court. Seven of the officers were sentenced to life imprisonment, 14 faced sentences ranging from 15 to 25 years, and others received shorter prison terms.

The letter requested the release of the 220 imprisoned Tigrayan ex-soldiers who are being held in different parts of the country. It claimed that these officers were convicted on allegations related to the war, which had already been resolved by the Pretoria peace agreement.

For many Tigrayan families like Letay and Amit Nire, whose former soldier spouse is currently imprisoned in Debre Markos in the Amhara region, the signing of the peace deal in November 2022, followed by dropped charges against Tigrayan leaders and military officials, initially offered a glimmer of hope.

“The continued detention of these individuals contradicts the spirit of the Pretoria agreement and hinders national reconciliation and peace-building efforts,” the letter addressed to the defense minister stated. It further added that “their release, through pardon or other legal means, would be a significant gesture of goodwill and contribute positively to the healing process in Tigray and Ethiopia.”

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has confirmed to Addis Standard that over 200 convicted former Tigrayan army members remain behind bars, and they are monitoring their conditions of confinement.

Alleged killings and difficult prison conditions

Despite the letter written to the Defense Ministry and report of continued monitoring of the officers’ imprisonment by the EHRC, families, lawyers, and ex-detainees argue that neither the Tigray Interim Administration nor the federal government has given attention to the plights of the ex-military personnel. They further raise serious concerns regarding difficult prison conditions.

Another colonel, who was recently released (name concealed for safety reasons) said the detainees face mistreatments and suffer emotional trauma in the absence of medical and psychological assistance. He expressed concerns for others still imprisoned.

He was arrested in February 2021 while on duty in Pawi, Benishangul Gumuz region and taken to Dedessa military camp, East Wollega. According to him, between October 2020 and February 2021, over 2,600 Tigrayans were detained in Dedessa. He alongside 162 others were later taken to Metekel, Benishangul Gumuz, while others were dispersed to various locations.

Furthermore, the colonel alleged that several Tigrayan ex-ENDF soldiers were extrajudicially killed. He provided Addis Standard with a list of seven Tigrayan ex-soldiers who were fatally shot: one in Hawassa, one in Debre Markos, four in Pawi, one in Gambella, and another one in Dedessa.

These allegations have not been independently verified by Addis Standard, but the EHRC said it has received inquiries from families regarding disappeared ex-militants. Selamawit Girmay Regional Director of Human Rights Monitoring and Investigation at the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) told Addis Standard, “We are following the cases of these missing Tigrayan ex-ENDF members and are also concerned about reports that their whereabouts remain unknown.”

In December 2022, The Washington Post reported that at least 83 Tigrayan ex-soldiers were killed at the Mirab Abaya prison camp near Arba Minch, in Gamo zone of the formerly Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region. The report claimed that imprisoned ex-soldiers were killed in at least seven other locations.

Highlighting lack of food, clothing, and access to medical treatments, 72 ex-soldiers detained at Hawassa prison in the Sidama region have petitioned for a transfer to the Tigray region. According to the signed petition paper dated September 2023, and reviewed by Addis Standard, the detainees cite denial of justice, economic and social hardships, psychological distress, medical issues, and rights violations as the key challenges they face at their current prison location.

The detainees in their petition express their frustration and sense of injustice, having served their country with dedication only to face mistreatment and isolation.

“Our families in Tigray are facing language and economic barriers, preventing them from visiting and supporting us. As a result, we are in a dire financial situation and have had to sell basic necessities, such as clothes, to afford essential hygiene items like soap,” stated the petition. “Some of us have sustained war injuries, while others suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes that require regular insulin injections. We also have elderly inmates with high blood pressure who depend on the crucial support of family members in Tigray for their well-being.”

Legal ambiguity and the way forward

Haftom Kahssay, a lawyer and coordinator of the defense team for the ex-soldiers, highlights systemic issues that are hindering progress. He points to unfair trials, broad accusations of treason, and the denial of chosen legal representation faced by many detainees.

“While some individuals have been released, many others remain in uncertain detention with their cases seemingly abandoned,” Haftom told Addis Standard. He added that despite appeals and interventions by legal teams, their sentences, ranging from years to life imprisonment, remain unchanged.

He paints a disturbing picture of the trials faced by several Tigrayan ex-ENDF members based on the widespread use of the generic label “betrayal of motherland.” This broad accusation lacks specific details, making it extremely difficult for the accused to mount a proper defense.

Haftom further revealed that some defendants have been denied copies of their verdicts, a critical document essential for exercising their fundamental right to appeal, as guaranteed by both Ethiopian civil and military laws.

The situation becomes even more concerning when considering the impact of the Pretoria Agreement. He said, “While the agreement secured the release of most individuals awaiting trial, those already convicted remain incarcerated, denying them the justice they deserve.”

According to the lawyer, ambiguity surrounding the interpretation of the peace agreement further slows down the potential release of these individuals. While the possibility of amnesty offers a flicker of hope, the unclear implementation leaves families filled with despair.

Getachew Reda, President of the Tigray Interim Administration, recently confirmed ongoing discussions with federal authorities regarding these detainees.

Gebremeskel Hailu, a legal expert from Mekelle University’s Faculty of Law, argues that due to the inherent political nature of their charges, the former members of the ENDF should have been released following the Pretoria peace agreement. The continued delay in their release casts doubt on the commitment to fully implementing the peace agreement.

“This is not just about legality; it is a plea for compassion and a chance to bring hope back to families who long for the return of their loved ones, all in the spirit of fostering genuine reconciliation,” Gebremeskel emphasized. In addition, the expert also highlights the importance of the international community’s involvement in securing the release of the former soldiers. AS

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