Nick Wadhams, Sanfransisco Chronicle Foreign Service
"They took us turn by turn to a dark place, and they would shock us and say, 'What do you think now? You won't change your ways now? Do you want to be a member of our party now?' " Tesfaye recalled of his time in prison early last year. He refused to give his last name for fear of being rearrested.
Accounts like this are common in today's Ethiopia. Interviews with dozens of people across the country, coupled with testimony given to diplomats and human rights groups, paint a picture of a nation that jails its citizens without reason or trial, and tortures many of them — despite government claims to the contrary.
Such cases are especially troubling because the U.S. government, a key Ethiopian ally, has acknowledged interrogating terrorism suspects in Ethiopian prisons, where some detainees were sent after being arrested in connection with Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December. There have been no reports that those jailed have been tortured. The invasion ousted an Islamic movement accused of having ties to al Qaeda that threatened to topple an interim Somali government struggling to control the country.
The Bush administration maintains that Meles' government, a leading partner in its war on terror in East Africa, is committed to democratic and human rights reform. The government was severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown that saw tens of thousands of opposition members jailed and nearly 200 people killed following elections in which the opposition made major gains.
People across Ethiopia recounted stories of a government backsliding on human rights issues. They told of confinement for days in tiny, dark cells with their hands bound 24 hours a day; electric shocks; beatings with rubber clubs; police who held guns to prisoners' heads; mutilation or pain inflicted on the genitals.
"If you think differently, that is enough to put you on the side of the opposition," said 34-year-old Teferi, who recently was released from prison after two months without being charged with a crime. "If you say, 'This is not right, this is right, it's good to rule peacefully,' if you talk something fair, it's over for you because there is no fairness from them."
Teferi said a police source told him that he was arrested because he played too much pingpong — and that police suspected he was recruiting people to a rebel group while he played. He said he was imprisoned at a police training camp called Sankele outside the city of Ambo, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has been barred from visiting.
Ethiopian officials dismiss stories of torture as lies, and have taken the further step of expelling everyone from foreign journalists to representatives of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Ethiopian reporters for the U.S.-financed Voice of America must work in secret for fear of harassment.
Bereket Simon, a top adviser to Meles, said it's in the interests of rights groups to lie about the situation, and he rejected the idea that torture occurs in Ethiopia.
"No way. No way. No way. I think you know, these are prohibited by laws, by Ethiopian laws — torture, any human treatments," Bereket said. "In fact, we have been improving on our prison standards. We've been working hard to train the police forces, the interrogators."
U.S. officials say Washington's close alliance with the government in Addis Ababa allows it to raise concerns about Ethiopia's record privately. The State Department is requesting more than $500 million for Ethiopian aid in fiscal 2008, almost all of it for HIV/AIDS relief. The United States trains Ethiopian troops, and the two governments have shared intelligence about Somalia.
U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto said he wants to investigate claims of abuse, but warned against making allegations about Ethiopia's actions without proof.
"There's a lot of misinformation about Ethiopia — I mean, it's amazing," Yamamoto said. "The problem comes in trying to divide or separate what is fact and what's fiction, and trying to keep an open mind on every issue. … There are problems, and we're free to admit that, and the Ethiopians are open to admitting that as well."
Ethiopia's critics are skeptical of the government's promises to improve its human rights record.
"Over the years, the more I see, the more I become convinced that not only does the government tolerate it, but I think they direct this kind of behavior," said Ethiopian-born Theodros Dagne, a senior aide to Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., a leading critic of Ethiopian practices on human rights.
European diplomats and employees of Western aid groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they keep quiet about abuses because they fear the government will freeze them out of aid work. About 2.8 million of Ethiopia's 75 million people depend on foreign food aid.
Washington's steadfast support has led some Ethiopian opposition leaders to assert that Meles' government has only been emboldened.
"We fully believe that the international community is not going to democratize this place — it's going to be the tough task of the Ethiopians," said Beyene Petros, a lawmaker and leader of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition groups. "Simply, the U.S. State Department's or the U.S. government's position on Ethiopia is that it's a friendly government, and how can you go and quarrel with your friend because somebody told on him?"
Zoe Alsop contributed to this story, which was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting