Former Ethiopian president Negasso Gidada sent an urgent appeal to Human Rights Commission chief Teruneh Zenna Monday asking protection for opposition leaders being held at Addis Ababa's Kaliti prison.Two senior members of Negasso's Unity for Democracy and Justice, or UDJ party, are among several politicians and journalists being kept at the prison while they face trial on terrorism charges.Representatives of the Human Rights Commission did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
Negasso said Andualem Aragie, UDJ external relations and publicity chief, suffered possibly severe head injuries last week when he was beaten by a violent criminal placed in a cramped cell with him. After the incident, Negasso said the convict, who is serving a life sentence for murder, was moved to different cell, where he was placed next to another senior UDJ official being tried with Andualem.
Relatives who have seen Andualem say his head injury appears to have affected his ability to maintain his balance. His wife, a medical doctor, is reported to have urged him to seek medical help.
UDJ Deputy Chairman Hailu Araya said Andualem, however, is afraid to request hospitalization because of reports about harsh treatment given to terrorism suspects.
“Considering the danger he's facing and the negative attitude the government has toward those people allegedly accused of terrorism, he's afraid anything could happen in a hospital," said Hailu.
Hailu accused prison authorities of deliberately placing a violent criminal in Andualem's cell. He called the placement a violation of law and Ethiopia's constitution.
"We are in a country where you cannot really depend on the law. You could complain, a complaint was lodged with the prison authorities, they simply dismissed it as a personal quarrel, so all they did was remove him to another place," said Hailu.
Andualem and UDJ executive committee member Natnael Mekonnen were arrested last September along with Internet journalist Eskinder Nega, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government. The arrests came days after Eskinder was invited to UDJ party headquarters to address a meeting on press freedom.
Before his arrest, Andualem had been considered a rising star in opposition politics, becoming the UDJ's chief spokesman and external relations officer. UDJ is the largest party in Ethiopia's main opposition bloc Medrek.
Government spokesmen at the time strongly denied the arrests had anything to do with the suspects' political activities. A senior official involved in the investigation said those charged were involved in a plot to commit acts of terrorism.
Attorneys say the defendants face a possible death sentence if convicted. Their trial is set to resume March 5.