When Kefyalew Tefera emerged from Ethiopia's Kaliti Prison last month after 12 years of confinement, it was in a wheelchair — with both of his legs missing, but with an overwhelming sense of gratitude intact.
"What kept me going were her dedicated visits, love and care, and words of encouragement that I would one day be free," he said of his older sister, Weyinishet Derese. She was waiting at the federal prison in an Addis Ababa suburb when Kefyalew and more than 300 other detainees were released June 15. They were among thousands of prisoners freed this year in the government's bid to calm political dissent.
Kefyalew, now in his early 30s, serves as an extreme symbol of the suffering inflicted in Ethiopian prisons. His release and that of other detainees comes as part of a wave of reforms — and, for some, rising hopes — in the Horn of Africa country.
A report issued last week by Human Rights Watch chronicling neglect, abuse and torture at Jail Ogaden in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region is the latest condemnation of inmates' treatment in the country over the years.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office April 2 promising an array of changes, told parliament in June that the ruling party's security forces had committed "terrorist acts" against citizens, unlawfully "torturing, causing bodily damages and even putting inmates in dark prison cells."
Just before the report's release, Ethiopia's attorney general announced the heads of all federal detention centers had been replaced for failing to protect prisoners' rights.
The Somali regional government denies the allegations of mistreatment at Jail Ogaden, located in the provincial capital of Jijiga. "This is far from the truth, and it's fabricated," Ismail Abdi, the information minister, told VOA's Somali Service.
Amnesty International also has "documented a number of human rights violations" at prisons in Ethiopia's Somali, Oromia, Amhara and Southern regions, as well as in Addis Ababa, said Fisseha Tekle, the rights group's Ethiopia researcher. He said the victims generally have been political prisoners — "university students, youths, online activists and any concerned individuals who are critical of the government."
A devastating surprise
When Kefyalew caught the attention of security forces, he had just finished his third year of studying plant science at the Southern region's Harwassa University. He was visiting his older sister in Addis Ababa and expecting to go on to their parents' home in Oromia.
Kefyalew and several friends were walking to an Addis bus station on Sept. 14, 2007, when police opened fire, he said in a phone interview. One shot tore into his left knee; another grazed his right ankle.
"It could have been easily treated," he said of that wound.
At the Federal Police Hospital, Kefyalew was told his left leg was so damaged that part of it would be amputated, he said. But when he awoke from surgery, his right foot was missing.
"Every time I asked for an explanation, they put me to sleep," the young man said.
Later, his left leg was cut off above the knee. When gangrene infected his right leg, it was cut twice more — to roughly 10 centimeters below his pelvis. A month after the shooting, Kefyalew was transferred to the capital's notorious Maekelawi detention center and given a mattress on the floor of a crowded cellblock.
Kefyalew was charged with treason and with planning a bombing attack in Addis, he said. He also was blamed for the deaths of the three friends killed by security forces. He was stunned. Though he said he sometimes criticized government actions while in conversations with a few university friends, he hadn't joined any political parties.
"I was a good student. I never even missed classes. But they kept asking us who sent us to explode bombs," he said of his prison interrogators.
They tried to coerce a confession by hanging Kefyalew from his wrists and poking at his wounds, or by dropping him for sport, or subjecting him to "unspeakable" barbarity, he said. He was convicted of the charges and sentenced to life in prison.
But amid the cruelty, Kefyalew found kindness. Fellow prisoners carried him to the bathroom, helped him with basic care and provided encouragement. His sister, Weyinishet, alternated with the relatives of other prisoners to deliver communal food several times a week.
Though Kefyalew no longer is imprisoned, his struggles go on.
Nerve damage radiates pain through his left thigh. His prosthetic legs, made for someone else, don't fit properly and irritate tissue. He hopes to get medical treatment for various ailments, funded in part through modest donations from an online fundraising campaign.
The young man is staying with his sister and her husband in the capital city. Their bed-ridden mother still lives in Oromia; their father, grief-stricken over Kefyalew's incarceration, died in 2011.
Each morning, Weyinishet helps Kefyalew from his bed into his wheelchair, where he spends the day. He said he hopes his health improves enough so he can complete his university studies. But now, he imagines a career outside of botany — he'd like to start some type of nongovernmental organization.
Kefyalew doesn't expect restitution for his 12 years spent in detention or for the permanent loss of his legs. He said it would be compensation enough to prevent the kind of abuse he experienced.
"I hope we will build a system where people no longer face extrajudicial punishment. I hope to see the rule of law prevail in Ethiopia," he said.
Calls for assistance
Amnesty International's Tekle contends Kefyalew and other detainees deserve redress. "Compensation is important for victims" of torture, he said. "Most of them still suffer psychologically and they need the current government in power to take responsibility."
HRW's Ethiopia researcher, Felix Horne, told VOA, "I think it would be an important step to acknowledge the suffering that these torture victims have undergone for many years."
He recommended that the government provide services to address "the physical and emotional scars" of detainees' treatment.
Horne also observed that "there's just no treatment available." Political sensitivities might prevent existing organizations from assisting former detainees, he said.
"With all the talk of reform, it is a huge opportunity for humanitarian agencies — different NGOs — to spring up to treat these individuals."
Carol Guensburg adapted this report, with contributions from Salem Solomon, Jalene Gemeda and Tigist Geme. It originated in VOA's Horn of Africa Service.