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Case of Ethiopian engineer detained in China is raised by PM Abiy Ahmed in meeting with Xi

“We’re living in fear for my sister’s life,” says sister of 27-year-old Nazrawit Abera, who has been held since last December on drug trafficking charges that her family — and 180,000 petition signatories — believe to be false.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed raised attention to an individual case of a 27-year-old Ethiopian civil engineering graduate’s pre-trial detention in China, who is held on alleged drug trafficking charges, to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Second Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last Tuesday, according to a Facebook post of the Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

Prime Minister Abiy “expressed concern on the detainment of the young female engineer Nazrawit Abera” reportedly apprehended at the Beijing Airport in late December last year for carrying Class A drugs found in shampoo bottles.

Abera’s prolonged detention has caught the country by storm with protests and online campaigns urging the Ethiopian government to help grant her clemency. Abera’s family in particular have been mounting pressure on state officials claiming that she never travelled anywhere before this trip to China.

“No one can prove that Nazrawit ever, ever left Ethiopia her entire life,” Abby Abera, Nazrawit’s sister, said in a phone interview. “She planned this trip to China to just research on building materials as part of her job.”

According to Abby, the civil engineering graduate from Addis Ababa University was well-known in various construction firms in the city. The latest employer Abera worked for, Unity Kirkos Housing Cooperative, has vouched for her professionalism and ethics.

In early April, a former Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant and Abera’s long-time friend, Simret Kahsay, was arrested on suspected charges of secretly smuggling cocaine in the shampoo bottles. Local police reports found that Kahsay handed 5 shampoo bottles to Abera, all of which were made in Brazil.

Kahsay, along with a second suspect also arrested in connection to the crime, denied all accusations in their second court appearance this month.

“Nazrawit wasn’t having any of it. She became suspicious about why those bottles were that important. Simret tricked her into thinking that the bottles contain special chemicals to wash human hair wigs,” Abby explained, citing a voice recording of Kahsay’s confession which she said has been borne out by the Ethiopian authorities.

Abby also noted that no notification of the arrest was given to the family for over 6 weeks. By mid-March, an Ethiopian Airlines pilot in the Abera family with access to international airport services was able to independently retrieve information about Abera’s disappearance.

“We’re living in fear for my sister’s life. I know the Chinese government would kill anyone regardless of their nationality, especially if they’re found guilty in drug-related crimes,” Abby said.

Under Article 347 of the Chinese Criminal Law, anyone found trafficking more than 50 grams of drugs will be subjected to life imprisonment or death penalty. Doriane Lau, China researcher at Amnesty International, said that China metes out the severest level of punishment to deter people from taking part in criminal activities.

“The state has a recent history of cracking down on drug related crimes. But there’s little known information about the legal proceedings and judgments on these cases so no one can assess the fairness of these decisions,” Lau said.

Lau added that Abera’s situation is particularly worrying because the family should have received a formal notification of her indictment on the day of the arrest.

“Execution notices are classified as state secrets just so the number is kept well below the actual number which could be in the thousands,” Lau said, citing China’s nebulous secrecy laws that also conceal executions of foreign nationals.

In 2017, Amnesty International reported that media coverage of death penalty cases have been scarce, noting the absence of news of the Supreme People’s Court approving death penalty sentences in the public domain.

“It’s really important that the family receives support from the Ethiopian consulate and the international community,” Lau said, emphasizing that there is a deprivation of basic legal rights that needs to be addressed before the Supreme People’s Court reach their verdict.

Back in Addis, trepidation about Abera facing execution runs high in the family and wider community, recognizing China’s global reputation for the highest rate of capital punishment.

“I don’t know how my sister is because the Chinese authorities are unwilling to give any information at all,” Abera said. “They probably won’t even inform us when the execution notice will be released.”

Nebiyat Getachew, spokesperson of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, confirmed to local media groups in Ethiopia that 22 Ethiopians are presently embroiled in criminal charges in China. The Foreign Ministry did not identify names other than Abera.

Getachew also warned of “fake scholarships” used to swindle Ethiopian students to China on illegal trips with hidden khat, or addictive drug plants, in their possession that wound them up in prison.

“It’s great that the attorney general and prime minister are helping us bring the real criminal to justice and free Nazrawit from a country alien to her, but we won’t stop getting our voices heard until we see her for ourselves,” Abby said.

Abera’s family and friends have launched a global petition call to rally support for more media attention to the case. The petition now has over 180,000 signatures and has captured Prime Minister Abiy’s attention. It remains to be seen how Abiy, aside from securing lucrative economic deals, will also stand up for human rights concerns in the Chinese legal system.

But with the soaring support Abera’s case has received nationwide, Abby is hopeful that their efforts won’t be in vain.

Fatima Qureshi

Fatima Qureshi is a freelance journalist and recent graduate from the Masters in Journalism program at the University of Hong Kong. She is a contributor at a few online-variety publications in the UK including gal-dem and Media Diversified, and in Hong Kong for a nonprofit refugee rights organization, Table of Two Cities. She mainly writes about human rights and immigration issues in the context of current political affairs.

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