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Rape and genital maiming/mutilation as a torture method in Ethiopian Prisons? (Girma Birhanu)

Evidence that prisoners of conscience, critical journalists, and activists have been abused

Girma Birhanu
March 21, 2018


In recent years, it has come to be recognized that men and women activists, prisoners of conscience, and critical journalists in Ethiopia have been sexually abused in detention as a method of torture. We do not know exactly how common the abuse is. Few former prisoners are willing to disclose their experience. Rape, genital maiming/mutilation, and sexual violence including sodomy are under-reported by both men and women. Male survivors of sexual violence are less likely than women and girls to disclose assaults (Callender & Dartnall 2011)1 due to a combination of cultural and religious reasons manifested through shame, confusion, and guilt. This study uses personal accounts and anecdotal evidence to investigate the alleged abuses. The data indicate that genital maiming/mutilation and rape have been practiced in an attempt to silence dissent and humiliate the victims. This study highlights the urgent need for the international community and local human rights organizations to address seriously the needs of victims of sexual violence such as genital maiming, rape, and other obscene and sadistic, ill treatment in prisons. The human cost of the silencing and the marginalization of survivors can only be estimated at present.

Summary and Preliminary Conclusion

The project is underway and the conclusions that we can draw from this work are tentative. For many years there have been rampant rumors that prison officials and interrogators in Ethiopia abuse prisoners of conscience, journalists, and members of the opposition party. These prisoners have been exposed to unspeakable violation and are at the same time incapable of public expression in Ethiopia where sexual abuse is a taboo subject. Rape and the maiming of genital organs as a method of torture are part of this tragedy. Abuses are not only sexual. They are multifold: dehydration, starvation, and solitary confinement; refusal to provide basic medical care; ignoring cries for help; and varied forms of psychological abuse.

The objectives of this study are (a) to document the magnitude of this tragedy; (b) to create public awareness; (c) to assist the victims; and (d) to encourage survivors to come forward and share their stories with researchers and human right activists. As there is no possibility of obtaining recognizable justice in Ethiopia, this documentation is essential to helping the victims gain access to international judicial mechanisms. Survivors could file suit and pursue criminal prosecution and trials for both the perpetrators and those who ordered the sexual torture. It has been demonstrated on many occasions that the federal judiciary in Ethiopia lacks the independence and determination to prosecute these crimes. As a result, an international system would provide hope to the survivors and their families in pursuing criminal prosecution. 2

There are a number of challenges to realizing the above objectives and goals. The first is lack of credible evidence. It is next to impossible to induce survivors to talk about their ordeals, so most of the evidence and data in this report are anecdotal. Two of the personal accounts lack rigor because survivors were not willing to share their experiences in detail. A second challenge lies in the ability to prove systematic abuse. Zawati observes, “The International Criminal Court Statute states that sexual abuse is a crime against humanity if they can prove that it was done in a systematic way”.3 Theoretically, one ought to regard these atrocities or acts in their context and verify whether they may be regarded as part of an overall policy or a consistent pattern of an inhumanity, or whether they instead constitute isolated or sporadic acts of cruelty. 4The limited data in this study indicate that the atrocities are planned, systematic, procedural, and omnipresent. By omnipresent we mean that the abuses appear to be present in all prisons at all times where activists and opposition party members are incarcerated. The anti-terrorism proclamation (A Proclamation on anti-terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009)5 has provided an instrument to crush dissent and silence opposition parties. The proclamation punishes free expression, a violation of international law. The consequence is painfully real for journalists and activists who face imprisonment for exercising basic rights. They have been branded by the Government as traitors and terrorists.

The study findings show that obscene and sadistic forms of torture are used in prison. The purpose of the abuse is purely to humiliate the victim and to intimidate others.

Sexual abuse has consequences far beyond the event itself. Harms include physical damage, psychological insult, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, and intrusive memories. In a country where psychological and psychiatric treatment, counselling, and emotional support are not common, it is very difficult for the survivors to reassemble their lives and to function as socially adequate and occupationally competent citizens.6 The gravity of this problem can be even more complicated among male victims because of cultural beliefs and deep seated traditions.7,8

A cardinal reflection and overwhelming surprise in this study is the widespread rumor among Ethiopians that sodomy is also practiced in prison by government agencies as a method of torture9 More research and investigation is required to substantiate such rumors. At present, the data are quite limited and diffuse. However, other forms of sexual abuse, such as genital maiming, rape, obscene and sadistic, ill-treatment, are documented practice.

1Callender, T. and E. Dartnall (2011) “Mental health responses for victims of sexual violence and rape in resource poor settings.” SVRI Briefing Paper, Sexual Violence Research Initiative, Medical Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa (e-version).

2 http://justiceforiran.org/english-sexual-abuse-and-torture-of-politically-active-women-in-prisons-crimes-against-humanityshadi-sadr/?lang=en

3Zawati, Hilmi (2007) “Impunity or immunity: wartime male rape and sexual torture as a crime against humanity.” Torture, 17(1): 27-47.



6Noll-Hussong, Michael et al. (2010) “Aftermath of sexual abuse history on adult patients suffering from chronic functional pain syndromes: an fMRI pilot study.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68: 483-487.

7 Lewis, Dustin (2009) “Unrecognized victims: sexual violence against men in conflict settings under international law.” Wisconsin International Law Journal, 27(1): 1-50.

8Sorsoli, Lynn et al. (2008) “ ‘I keep that hush-hush:’ male survivors of sexual abuse and the challenges of disclosure.” Journal of Counselling Psychology, 55(30): 333-345.

9 Walker, Jayne, John Archer and Michelle Davies (2005) “Effects of rape on men: A descriptive analysis.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34 (1): 69-80.

Professor Girma Berhanu’s contact information :

Department of Education and Special Education
Västra Hamngatan 25, A-hus room 168
Mail address: Box 300, 405 30 Göteborg
office: +46-(0)31-786 2325
mobile: +46 704731818

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