Forget Abuse, Birtukan Was Tortured
When nauseating details of Birtukan Mideksa’s mistreatment in prison get a day’s light, it is not just one’s convictions about the brutality of Ethiopia’s ruling regime that will be tested; they also pose a test to our verbal power – our ability to summon a word or a term to name them. Were I hazard one, it is Verschärfte Vernehmung, a phrase that pre-war German officials concocted to describe the techniques of what one victim called “silent torture”.
A day after her release, I gave Birtukan a call. Our conversation was short. “I do not want to talk about prison now,” she replied to one particularly insensitive question about prison conditions. In interviews to the media, her considered and consistently repeated statement was: “prison was difficult.” But from the chatter of her close friends, I had learned that there was a lot more detail to that statement. After hours of probing and prodding people who knew, this is the most chilling way that I can state what I found out.
-While in solitary confinement, Birtukan suffered from a medical problem which was not life threatening, but as sufferers would testify, was excruciatingly painful and needed immediate treatment to alleviate the pain. For months, they denied her medical help, leaving her alone in a dark 2×2.
-When she got treatment after months of pain, her health condition deteriorated even further. She suffered from a more serious problem. Again, they denied her of medical treatment for the new problem until it advanced to such a stage that they feared it might end up as a repeat of the Professor Asrat Saga; this time the victim would be a much younger and healthier female politician.
-The new medical treatment caused another health complication for which as in the previous cases she only got treatment after a lot of suffering.
-In this period, Birtukan was either in a solitary confinement or with prisoners who had serious mental problems.
-Withholding medical help was accompanied by constant physical abuse.
This, to borrow from Christopher Hitchens, is just “the rehearsal for one’s revulsion.” I do not want to insult your humanity – dear reader – by asking you to imagine yourself in her place or pause to think of what each of the above means. However, I have to tell you that the full details were much, much worse. If the best case in this context were to be made by putting forward each stomach churning fact, this article has not got to 20% of the way.
In pre-war Germany, officials were constantly embarrassed by prisoners who showed the marks of torture when they appeared in court. Silent forms of torture that left no traces were invented to avoid that. In Birtukan’s case, Verschärfte Vernehmung was applied because she was an internationally recognized political prisoner. That she would be released from prison despite Meles Zenawi’s insistence that it was a dead case was a given. The regime made sure that Birtukan experienced both the physical and mental effects of torture without leaving the marks to prove it. Yet as a Norwegian court said of Verschärfte Vernehmung, “torture is torture.”