by Mahlet Fasil | Addis Standard Newspaper
In a disturbing e-mail message received by Addis Standard, an eyewitness who said he was on guard the morning of Saturday Sep 3, says that armed prison guards were indiscriminately shooting at prisoners” most of whom were running “frantically to extinguish the fire” that broke at Ethiopia’s notorious prison ward known as Qilinto, in Aqaqi, on the outskirts south of the capital.
The government has not released the extent of the fire, not the cause of it, but several social media accounts allege the death toll reaching above 20.
Until this morning families of prisoners who want to know the safety of their loved ones are not allowed to pass the Tirunesh Beijing Hospital, located at about three km before the prison. Some families said the prison administration told them information on the safety and whereabouts of the prisoners will only be available on Wednesday this week.
In the e-mail, the person who also attached his work ID but said he wishes to remain anonymous wrote many prisoners were “kept at gun point” from approaching the area where the fire was destroying parts of the prison in the “southern end of the ward.” “I have seen about five prisoners gunned down in the spot by armed security guards from two different towers during the first 20 minutes only,” the email said. It added: “unarmed guards at the gate, including myself, were told by the prison admiration to instruct family members who were already at the gate and who came to visit their loved ones to return back.”
The maximum security prison is administered by the Addis Abeba Prison administration but since Saturday morning the “federal army has taken over the security and most of the prison guards, including myself, are not allowed inside since then.”
The fire broke at around 8:10 AM in the morning and lasted a good “two hours” before the fire brigade from the Addis Abeba Fire and Emergency Prevention and Rescue Agency arrived at the scene. The state-affiliated news portal FBC reported that three firefighters were treated at a hospital for smoke related breathing problems while it maintained only one person was killed in the accident.
However, in the email received by Addis Standard, the security guard revealed that he has helped “18 bodies being taken out of the prison in the late afternoon. As far as I know none of the dead were due to the fire. They all died of gunshot wounds.”
Qilinto is known for the harsh treatment of its prisoners, many of who are prisoners of conscious including the prominent opposition leader Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and 21 others with him facing charges of terrorism. It is also where Yonatan Tesfaye, the young senior opposition Blue Party member, and prominent rights activist is held.
Recently Bekele Gerba and others with him were mobilizing activists from their cell by sending letters which were secretly smuggled out of the maximum security prison. One such letter called for peaceful resistance as part of the ongoing #AmharaProtests and #OromoProtests and asked supporters of the protests to shave their heads and wear black, to which supporters responded in numbers.
Three days after the tragic incident exact figures of causalities (both death and injuries, as well as property damages) are still hard to come by. The prison itself is not accessible to anyone and is being guarded by heavily armed federal police officers who are also conducting rigorous searching of residents living nearby.
Eyewitnesses say the remaining prisoners were taken on Saturday afternoon to Ziway prison, located some 200km south of the capital. However, due to the inaccessibility of the prison and unavailability of official information, Addis Standard is unable to verify both the e-mailed information and other eyewitness accounts.