Hunger-striking Ethiopia politicians 'deteriorating' in jail

FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 file photo, opposition politician Jawar Mohammed speaks with The Associated Press at his house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Lawyers representing jailed Ethiopian opposition politicians including Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane and Dejene Tafa say they are concerned for the lives of their clients, whose hunger strike has gone on for nearly a month and drawn international attention as they protest their treatment by the government. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NAIROBI – Lawyers representing jailed Ethiopian opposition politicians say they are concerned for the lives of their clients, whose hunger strike has gone on for nearly a month and drawn international attention as they protest their treatment by the government.

“Four of them have continued with their hunger strike and their health is deteriorating quickly,” lawyer Tokuma Daba told The Associated Press, saying he last visited them on Monday. “Our concern now is for their lives. We are told by medics that they need a sophisticated medical treatment, which is lacking now. It is really concerning.”

The jailed politicians include media mogul-turned-politician Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane and Dejene Tafa. They were arrested along with at least 16 others following the killing of a renowned singer, Hachalu Hundessa, in June 2020. Amid outrage over the killing, violence targeting ethnic minorities claimed the lives of several dozen people, mainly in the Oromia region.

Some ethnic Oromos feel their quest for more democratic space and the freedom to choose their leaders has not been fulfilled since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. They accuse him of defaulting on some of his promises by arresting some politicians who returned to Ethiopia from abroad, including Jawar, after he assumed power.

The jailed politicians face charges including conspiring to dismantle the constitution by force and other terror-related offenses. They have rejected the charges as politically motivated.

The prisoners’ “treatment by the Ethiopian government is exacerbating a serious crisis, especially as their health deteriorates,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and current Biden administration nominee for foreign aid chief Samantha Power tweeted last week, calling it critical for the government to “change course before it is too late.”

The prisoners assert that their arrests were meant to deny them the chance to take part in Ethiopia’s upcoming national election in June. On Tuesday, Ethiopia’s election board made it clear that politicians behind bars will not be able to present themselves as candidates.

Tokuma said his clients are conducting a hunger strike for several reasons including protesting the harassment and arrests of their supporters and family members. His clients also seek the release of all political prisoners.