Engineer Tesfahun Chemeda
(OPride) – Engineer Tesfahun Chemeda, a fierce Oromo rights advocate and a former UNHCR recognized refugee, died yesterday of undisclosed cause at Kaliti prison, where he was serving a life sentence under concocted charges of plotting to overthrow government, reports said.
Chemeda was nabbed along with a close friend Mesfin Abebe in 2007 from Nairobi, where they lived as refugees since 2005, by Kenyan anti-terrorism police and was later deported to Ethiopia, according to Oromia Support Group (OSG), a UK-based human rights organization.
“The two men were picked up in a restaurant by Kenyan anti-terrorist police on 27 April 2007 and taken to Kamukunji police station, where they were held overnight before being transferred to Giriri police station,” OSG wrote in 2010 press release.
The duo were subsequently visited by UNHCR and members of the FBI in Kenya who assured them that “they would not be deported,” according to OSG reports and activists who were advocating for their release at the time.
“I had an opportunity to meet with Kenyan anti-terrorism head, inspector Francis Wanjiru, and an FBI agent,” wrote Raajii Gudeta, 31, in an email to OPride from Edmonton, Canada where he now lives. “Both the FBI and Kenyan official told me that they [Chemeda and Abebe] were not terrorists. We don’t have any business with them but the Ethiopia government need them badly.”
On May 9, 2007, during a court hearing, Kenyan officials told a local judge the two were already “sent back to Ethiopia to face terrorism charges,” citing a doctored “Laissez Passer from the Ethiopian embassy, dated 1 May, which had obviously been backdated as that day was a public holiday,” according to OSG.
Efforts by members of the Kenyan Oromo community, Kenyan Human Rights Commission, and the UNHCR to prevent their refoulement went to no avail, according to Sori Fengor, 43, of Minnesota, who knew and lived with Chemeda at the time. Chemeda and Abebe were held incommunicado until December 2008 when they were formally charged in Ethiopian court.
“The last time I saw Chemeda was on May 10 2007 at Muthaiga police station,” wrote Gudeta, who worked as a Community Development Officer for the International Rescue Committee at the time. “After I dropped off food and water for them, Tesfahun saw me crying and grabbed a copy of the Daily Nation newspaper and slapped me saying, ‘we will be handed over to the Woyane [Ethiopian] regime, forget about us and focus on organizing the Oromo youth so that the Oromo struggle can reach its final destination.’”
Chemeda was accused of being an activist with the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization formed in 1973 to fight for self-determination of Oromo people in Ethiopia. A three-judge panel at Ethiopia’s federal court latersentenced Chemeda to life in prison without parole in April 2011.
Fifteen other Oromo co-defendants received stiff prison terms while Abebe was sentenced to death. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, comprising more than 40 percent of the country’s population. There are an estimated 20 to 30,000 Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia.
Chemeda was born in the East Wollega zone of Oromia region near Guduru district. He attended Shambu High School before joining Addis Ababa University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Following his graduation in 2001 from Addis Ababa University, Chemeda, a civil engineer, worked for Ethiopian Road Transport Authority.
Chemeda sought asylum in Kenya sometime in 2005 following harassment and intimidation at the hands of Ethiopian security and road transport administration officials, his acquaintances said.
Early Saturday afternoon when the news of Chemeda’s death broke on social media, activists changed their profile pictures to his photo and wrote to express their grief and condolences. Many remembered Chemeda as a humble, soft-spoken rational thinker, and strategic leader.
Other acquaintances reached by OPride remembered Chemeda for his relentless advocacy and commitment to Oromo people’s freedom. Many Oromo refugees in Kenya knew him in 2005 and 2006 through his role in the now defunct East African Oromo Students’ Association and efforts to organize Oromo refugees in Kenya.
Chemeda’s involvement in Oromo student activism dates back to early 2000. “I went to Menelik Hospital with Chemeda to collect the corpse of Simee Tarafa, an Oromo student who was mysteriously killed in 2001 while attending Mekelle University in Ethiopia’s Tigray region,” recalled Geresu Tufa.
“Before that I worked closely with Chemeda in a 12-member Oromo students committee set up to organize a nationwide campaign to extinguish a forest fire in Bale and Borana regions.” Chemeda was instrumental in signing up over 3000 volunteers and about 480 students dispatched to put out the forest fire, according to Tufa.
Chemeda has been in solitary confinement at Kaliti prison for nearly two years after he was transferred there from Ziway, according to family sources. Early reports about the circumstances of his death are unclear. Some suggest that Ethiopian officials murdered him because they could not break his spirit even after years of torture. Others say authorities are unofficially claiming that he committed suicide.
Chemeda’s sister, the only visitor he had seen for years, was denied the body on Saturday pending “further medical examination,” according to Gudeta. She had seen him earlier this week and reported no changes in his attitude or demeanor.