Families and relatives of prisoners are desperate for answers after Ethiopia’s high-security prison, Kilinto, located on the outskirts, south of the capital Addis Ababa, caught fire on Saturday.
The fire broke out at about 8.10am and lasted a “good two hours” before the fire brigade from the Addis Ababa Fire and Emergency Prevention and Rescue Agency arrived at the scene.
State media, quoting an exclusive statement sent to it from the Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO), said that 23 inmates had died, among which 21 from a stampede, burns and suffocation, while two were shot dead as they were apparently trying to escape.
Though the cause of the blaze remains unknown, the government says it is still investigating. However, families are anxious to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
“I do not know where my son is. Is he shot dead or burnt alive or even is he alive? I have no idea. I rampaged everywhere in the prison compound, shouting and asking for him. I searched for him in hospitals, but no one tells me anything, and I could not find my son,” bemoaned Muchit Teka, the mother of Yonatan Tesfaye, a young senior opposition Blue Party member and prominent rights activist.
Tesfaye, the spokesperson of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, was arrested in December 2015 and held in lengthy pretrial detention for comments he posted on Facebook. He was held without charge for months, and it was not until May 4 this year that he was charged with “incitement, planning, preparation, conspiracy and attempt” to commit a terrorist act.
The government says his posts against a government plan to extend the capital’s administrative authority to the Oromia region were in pursuit of the objectives of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which it considers a terrorist organisation.
“Even if they are dead they should let us know, as it is a customary and the right thing to do to rest the dead properly,” Teka cried.
“How can they be silent about this? Don’t they have families? What if they were in our shoes?”
Tesfaye’s mother was not the only one lamenting the silence of the government in the wake of the deadly blaze. The compound is being guarded by security forces but families are waiting on the streets around it for information, while others desperately search hospital records.
“We searched for them in hospitals and the prison but they are not there and no one would tell us. The government has the responsibility to inform where our families are,” said Bontu Bekele – Son of Bekele Gerba, a prominent politician and deputy chairperson of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
Local media reported that two buildings as well as recreational and other facilities that inmates used were damaged by the fire. According to reports, nine injured inmates and police members are receiving medical treatment.
The remainder of the prison population were transferred to various other correctional facilities as large parts of the Kilinto facility was damaged.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is a multi-ethnic coalition made up of four parties. The opposition and political analysts, though, say it is dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. This is the main cause for the unrest, which, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch group, has seen at least 500 people killed by security forces since the protests began in November.
Though demonstrations first started among Ethiopian Muslim communities in 2012 demanding equal rights of people, it later spread to Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, the Oromo, and then to the Amhara, the second most populous group.
The Ethiopian government, which is a close ally of many Western nations because of its strategic geographical location in the region, last month rejected a United Nations request that it send observers, saying it alone was responsible for the security of its citizens.
Various international organisations have released statements expressing their “grave concern” at the deteriorating situation in the country.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democracy Front, which is often accused by rights groups of regularly cracking down on the opposition and jailing journalists, won every seat in the 547- seat parliament in elections last year.
– African News Agency (ANA)