Lawyers representing jailed Ethiopian opposition politicians say they are concerned for the lives of their clients, whose hunger strike has been going on for nearly a month and has drawn international attention as they protested their treatment by the government.
“Four of them have continued their hunger strike and their health is deteriorating rapidly,” lawyer Tokuma Daba told the Associated Press news agency, indicating that he last visited them on Monday. . “Our concern now is for their lives. Doctors tell us they need sophisticated medical treatment, which is currently lacking. It is really worrying.
The imprisoned politicians include Jawar Mohammed, media mogul turned politician, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane and Dejene Tafa.
They were arrested along with at least 16 other people following the murder of renowned singer Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020.
Amid the outrage over the murder, violence against ethnic minorities claimed the lives of dozens of people, mainly in the Oromia region.
Some ethnic Oromos believe that their quest for a more democratic space and the freedom to choose their leaders have not been fulfilled since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
They accuse him of breaking some of his promises by arresting some politicians who returned to Ethiopia from abroad, including Jawar, after taking power.
The imprisoned politicians face charges including conspiracy to dismantle the constitution by force and other “terrorism” offenses. They dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
“The Ethiopian government’s treatment of prisoners is exacerbating a serious crisis, especially as their health deteriorates,” the former US ambassador to the United Nations and the current Biden administration candidate tweeted last week. foreign aid chief Samantha Power, calling her critical of the government. “Change course before it’s too late”.
The prisoners say their arrest was aimed at denying them the chance to participate in Ethiopia’s upcoming national elections in June.
The Ethiopian electoral committee made it clear on Tuesday that politicians behind bars would not be able to run as candidates.
Tokuma said his clients were on hunger strike for a number of reasons, including to protest the harassment and arrests of their supporters and family members. His clients also demand the release of all political prisoners.
The striking prisoners refused to be treated in public hospitals, preferring a private hospital.
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United States, Fitsum Arega, tweeted last week that the offer to treat them at the National Military Medical Center “the Ethiopian equivalent of Walter Reed” was still valid.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia’s Supreme Court ruled that prisoners should receive medical treatment in a private hospital, but that treatment should take place inside Kaliti prison where they are being held.
“Imagine doctors carrying x-rays, oxygen tanks and intensive care equipment and performing treatment inside a prison cell or in the open field,” said another lawyer for the defendants, Tuli Bayissa. . “This decision amounts to a death sentence. It’s no less hard than that.
Earlier this month, the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, said of the striking prisoners that “very close monitoring is necessary to prevent any serious threat to their health and life and that the reasonably justified demands of prisoners must be met ”.
Quoting Kaliti prison officials, the commission said: “Most of the claims listed as reasons for the hunger strike are beyond the competence of the administration. And the prison administration does not mistreat visitors to prisoners.
Henok Gabissa, former president of the Oromo Studies Association and observer of Ethiopian politics, said the situation in the Oromia region was “terrible” and claimed that the Abiy administration was deterring Oromo politicians.
“The Oromo opposition parties have more legitimacy than the Abiy administration. The public in the region largely supports the prisoners and their demands, ”he said.
In a social media post on Wednesday, Abiy said that “the government’s clear role is to ensure that peaceful, free and fair elections take place in this highly anticipated cycle.”
Some opposition parties in Ethiopia are already reporting difficulties in preparing for elections such as harassment, arrests and even the murder of some of their members.