Three Christian Prisoners Still Held In Saudi Arabia

Monday, August 6, 2001

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, February 11 (Compass) -- Five more jailed Christians caught in deportation wrangles in Jeddah since December have been released to their home countries during the past two weeks, leaving one Filipino and two Ethiopians still under detention by Saudi authorities.

Of the 14 foreign Christians arrested since last summer in Saudi Arabia's leading port city, 11 have now been forcibly deported. Although no formal charges were ever filed against the expatriates, all have lost their jobs and are banned from returning to the kingdom.

The most recent deportees included Ethiopian Gebeyehu Tefera and Indian national Prabhu Isaac, who left Jeddah on February 7 for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Madras, India, respectively. Isaac had made seven trips to the airport since January 17 before gaining final clearance to leave.

Ethiopian Bahru Mengistu and his wife were allowed to leave on February 2, while Eritrean Yusuf Girmaye and Ethiopian Beferdu Fikri were deported on January 26.

After unsuccessful attempts on January 21 and 23, the wife and two small children of Nigerian Afobunor Okey Buliamin were finally permitted to fly back to Nigeria with their belongings on January 28, ten days after Buliamin had been deported.

As of today, exit permits for the deportations of Filipino Dennis Moreno and two Ethiopians remain stalled. Although four of the five cars registered by Moreno's employer in his name have been transferred, the expired license of the fifth car still has to be renewed. Once that process is completed, a date can be set by the Philippines Consulate for his departure.

With exit documents for Tinsaie Gizachew still in process, the Ethiopian Consulate has told the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) that it is expected everything will be completed in time for him to board the next flight to Ethiopia this Thursday, February 14.

A source "close to the Ethiopian church in Jeddah" confirmed a week ago that the paperwork had been completed to release Ismail Abubakr (Worku), the only Ethiopian transferred to a jail near Mecca. Last week his consulate reported he had been transferred from the jail to a local deportation center.

Meanwhile, a flogging scandal in Jeddah's Bremen deportation center in the last week of January left three other Ethiopian Christians bleeding and seriously injured, apparently on the orders of the detention center commander, Major Bender Sultan Shabani.

According to the flogged Christians -- Tinsaie Gizachew, Bahru Mengistu and Gebeyehu Tefera -- their punishment was prompted by a petition they had smuggled out a few days earlier to Ethiopian diplomatic sources, media and human rights organizations. The petition reportedly detailed their imprisonment over the previous six months "with no hearing, trial or process of law," solely because of their Christian faith.

The three wrote and signed a second letter in the Amharic language that they managed to get out of the Bremen deportation center the day after their flogging, declaring they had been kicked, beaten and then suspended with chains and lashed 80 times each with a flexible metal cable on January 28.

"Our bodies are wounded, swollen, terribly bruised and with great pain," their letter said, according to an English translation released on January 30 by the Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern. "When we reported to the prison hospital for treatment, we were slapped and told to come back after we were dead."

Both the Ethiopian Consulate and an Ethiopian church leader in Jeddah confirmed to MEC that the three detained Christians had been lashed and suffered injuries, as they claimed in their letter.

Despite the serious condition of Mengistu, who was reportedly passing blood in his urine from the beatings, the three were denied medical treatment for two days, until representatives from the Ethiopian Consulate intervened. When the Ethiopian Vice Consul eventually arranged with Saudi officials for Mengistu to be treated in a local hospital, the ailing Ethiopian refused to go, fearing it could be "a convenient place to finish him off," a local source commented.

Mengistu was admitted to a hospital upon his arrival in Addis Ababa on February 2.

The 14 Christians, all members of expatriate house churches meeting privately in Jeddah, were arrested from July through September last year. Non-Muslim worship is prohibited under the kingdom's strict version of Islamic law. Jeddah's religious police reportedly suspected the Christians had connections with Saudi nationals secretly participating in Christian gatherings in the kingdom, where apostasy from Islam is a capital offense.

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.