NAIROBI (Reuters) – Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu has been held in solitary confinement for nearly a week without charge or being given any evidence of wrongdoing, his lawyer said.
His lawyer Melkamu Ogo said on Wednesday that police informed him that their lines of enquiry included accusations of disseminating false information, communicating with groups fighting the government, and disturbing the public’s peace and security. However, he said he has seen no evidence.
Kumerra was arrested at his home in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last Thursday and is being held until at least Jan. 8 pending a police investigation.
Kumerra’s family said he was being held in a cold cell and was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. However, they said they were being allowed to visit Kumerra, as is his lawyer, and have brought him extra clothing, food and medication.
The Ethiopian police and prosecutor’s office did not respond to questions from Reuters on the reasons for Kumerra’s arrest and the conditions in which he is being held, nor requests for comment on his case.
“Kumerra is part of a Reuters team that reports from Ethiopia in a fair, independent and unbiased way,” Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement on Monday. “Kumerra’s work demonstrates his professionalism and impartiality, and we are aware of no basis for his detention.”
Similar accusations have been levelled against several other journalists this year, Melkamu said. However, media watchdog groups say in most cases no formal charges were filed.
Police and government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
PROMISES OF CHANGE
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has overseen sweeping reforms since taking office in 2018, including the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners and unbanning of scores of media outlets.
However, some rights activists have expressed concern that his government may be reverting to some of its predecessor’s authoritarian ways. Thousands of people were arrested this year after outbreaks of deadly violence, including a conflict between the military and a rebellious regional force in the northern region of Tigray.
Media watchdog groups, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), reported the arrests of at least seven Ethiopian journalists in November, the month that fighting broke out in Tigray.
“After freeing the journalists who were in prison when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018, the Ethiopian authorities are now going into reverse,” said Arnaud Froger, who heads the RSF’s Africa desk.
The prime minister’s office did not return calls and messages seeking comment. However, his government has previously said the nation is facing security threats, and it is committed to maintaining law and order.
Reuters has been unable to determine whether Kumerra’s arrest was connected to his work.
His wife, Hawi Desalegn, said the couple’s three children were deeply upset about his arrest. On Tuesday, she said that their 4-year-old son woke up several times in the night before crying “Daddy” and that their 7-year-old daughter was displaying outbursts of anger.
Her 10-year-old sister bursts into tears every time his name is mentioned, she said.
“We try to avoid talking about her dad in her presence.”
(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Jon Boyle)