In Saudi prisons, Ethiopian migrants are beaten and ‘forced to drink toilet water’
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Thousands of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi prisons are living in horrifying conditions, locked up in overcrowded and dirty cells, starving, mistreated and beaten, and in need of medical attention. Some of them are in mortal danger. One of our Observers told us about how 10 Ethiopians had recently died in these conditions.
On August 23, the Ethiopian consulate in Saudi Arabia published a list of 10 Ethiopian nationals who had died, including a child, in the al-Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah. When the FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the consulate, they did not want to comment on the reasons behind these deaths.
The news was not a surprise for our Observer Arafat Jibril Bakrii, an Ethiopian human rights activist who is in regular contact with Ethiopians who are detained in Saudi prisons, where illnesses such as diarrhoea and infections caused by the unhygienic conditions are common.
At the beginning of June, Saudi authorities began to arrest Ethiopian migrants in large numbers, even those who were documented and legal, arresting them on the street and in cafés and conducting house raids.
After a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia, the Ethiopian authorities have been organising regular repatriation flights for Ethiopian nationals in the country. On July 7, 2021, there were 35 such flights from Addis Ababa. In total, 40,000 Ethiopians were repatriated, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
'The one thing I did wrong was not to have a residency permit'
Muhammad (not his real name) is an Ethiopian locked up in a detention centre near Riyad.
There are more than 350 of us squeezed into one room. Some of us are forced to go and sleep in the toilets with all of the nauseating smells, simply because there’s not enough space. It’s really hot, and we get very little food, just one baguette a day, served in the evening. Lots of people are ill because of that, they’ve got diarrhoea and are feverish.
I don’t even have enough money to buy a razor to shave my beard and hair. They just give us a small bottle of water for the whole day. We’re often forced to drink toilet water.
Sometimes, the prison guards beat us up, if they discover that we have a mobile phone for example. It’s hell here. We could die.
I came to Saudi Arabia to work and help my family. But four months after I arrived, I was arrested and I’m rotting away here in this prison, even though I haven’t committed any crime. The one thing I did wrong was not to have a residency permit.
On August 23, the families of those detained organised a rally in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, calling on the Saudi government to put an end to the abuse happening in the country’s jails. According to Ethiopian state television, around 80,000 Ethiopians are currently detained in the kingdom.
The spokesperson for the Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry, Din Mufti, said on July 2 that Ethiopia considered the wave of forced repatriations part of the pressure exerted by the Arab League, including Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to dissuade Ethiopia from filling the dam reservoir for its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Built by Ethiopia in the upstream part of the Nile, this dam has been the source of tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan since 2011. Egypt and Sudan think that the dam will affect their water supplies.
Over the last few months, the living conditions of Ethiopian migrants in detention centres have got considerably worse, explains Arafat Jibril Bakrii, the president of the Oromo Human Rights Organisation (the Oromo are an ethnic group in Ethiopia).
‘A woman told me she saw a fellow prisoner die in front of her’
A few months ago, the people who I was in contact with were telling me they were getting three meals a day and that they had access to a doctor when they were ill.
But now, they only get a piece of bread, and water is essentially given out drop by drop. This sudden change in their living conditions can be explained by the growing number of arrests and detentions.
When the consulate visited the al-Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah, they found out that 10 Ethiopians, including a 6-year-old child, had died. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Ethiopian consulate doesn’t have access to every Saudi prison, only certain holding centres like those in Riyad and Jeddah.
Often, before being taken to a detention centre, Ethiopians who have been arrested are put in prisons. And no one knows how many Ethiopians die in these prisons. I only occasionally get direct testimony coming out of those prisons.
A month ago, a woman who was detained in a women’s prison in Jeddah told me that one of her fellow prisoners died in front of her. She was extremely weak, but they didn’t know what she was suffering from.
I spoke with a man who had been beaten by guards because they’d found a mobile phone on him. They took him out into the courtyard, lashed him with a whip and threw water all over him, then took him back to his cell.
This photo was sent to me from the al-Shumaisi detention centre in Riyad. The person explained to me that there were 500 men locked into this room. Men detained in the same centre sent me a photo of a fellow prisoner who was extremely thin. They were worried about his health, because he hadn’t been taken to see a nurse or to the hospital.
In an investigation published in October 2020, Amnesty International reported several cases of torture of Ethiopian detainees, highlighting two people who had received electric shocks after they complained about conditions. The NGO called on Saudi authorities to ‘immediately and significantly improve detention conditions, end torture and other ill-treatment, and ensure detainees have access to adequate food, water, sanitation, health care, accommodation and clothes’.