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ANALYSIS: “SHE IS A CAREER WOMAN NOT A DRUG TRAFFICKER!” FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF ETHIOPIAN WOMAN DETAINED IN CHINA SAY

Zecharias Zelalem

To say that Abby Abera has been mentally drained over the course of the past two and a half months would be an understatement. She has spent the lion’s share of the time comforting relatives both at home in Ethiopia and abroad, as well as trying to read up on the Chinese judicial system. The latter, with thin hopes of perhaps coming across something, anything that could possibly aid in the legal battle to save her younger sister’s life and put an end to a family’s anguish. “These months have been hell for us,” is how she describes the daily torment her family lives since learning of her sister’s arrest in China. “I raised my sister like my own daughter. I tried to give her everything she ever asked for,” she says when reminiscing about her. “It cannot end like this.”

Her sister, Nazrawit Abera, 27, is currently incarcerated at a prison facility in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, some 2000 km south of the capital Beijing. Held on drug trafficking charges since late December, her family strenuously deny she ever intended to import any illegal substances into the country. Her predicament is an increasingly worrying one as Nazrawit, who hasn’t been visited by family or seen a lawyer since her arrest, could face the death penalty if found guilty. It is what has robbed the family of any sense of normalcy ever since.

It was late last year, that Nazrawit, a civil engineer, flew out from her hometown Addis Abeba to explore her prospects in China. In Ethiopia, she had earned a lucrative salary employed at various construction firms. Described by her friends as studious and dedicated, she completed her university studies at age 23. “She was gifted from her childhood,” Abby tells Addis Standard. “She became a truly independent woman. Her services were so actively sought that once she had been contracted to two firms at the same time,” her sister explains.

Her trip to China was to investigate an opportunity to further her career and do research on the price of building materials while there. But shortly after arrival at Beijing Capital Airport, she was escorted away. Police had rummaged through her luggage after having detected something via the advanced high tech sensors at the airport. Five bottles of shampoo among her belongings, were full of cocaine. She was taken away and since that day, December 22nd, her family haven’t heard from her. Chinese courts have delivered execution notices for lesser amounts.

Article 347 of the Criminal law of the People’s Republic of China renders the consequences of being caught with illegal substances pretty clear. For heroin or cocaine, attempting to traffic any amount over 50 grams could result in being sentenced to life imprisonment, a 15 year prison term, or capital punishment.

Prison cells in China. Involvement at any level in the illegal drug trade warrants at the minimum a 15 year prison sentence, according to the Chinese Criminal Code (Image: Shanghai Daily)

The fact that a drugs charge could result in death is cruel and unusual, states Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher on China. “In general, Human Rights Watch advocates for the abolition of the death penalty around the world because it is a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality,” she tells Addis Standard before adding, “China’s legal system-controlled by the ruling Party-is also rife with torture and unfair trials.”

Recently, a Chinese court shocked observers by handing out a death sentence to Canadian national Robert Schellenberg. Schellenberg, 36, was originally charged with attempting to smuggle over 200 kilograms of crystal meth from China to Australia in 2014. Prior to his lengthy court battle which ended with the grim news of his sentencing this January, Schellenberg had a criminal record in Canada that involved drug trade activity.


Canadian Robert Schellenberg grimaces as his death sentence was announced on January 14th (Image: CCTV)

But Nazrawit does not have a criminal record, nor does she fit the profile of most detainees facing drug trafficking charges in China. Educated and trained as a civil engineer, she has carved out a reputation as a competent professional. Her involvement has been solicited for various construction projects across Ethiopia, including but not limited to the Yirgacheffe Hospital project. Employed as a site engineer with the Unity Kirkos Housing Cooperative from 2016 until her arrest, she was given a raving review by the company’s manager Mulu Desta who stated that she was a dedicated employee with a “professional attitude, ethics and very good job knowledge.” Financially well off, in a country where the average annual income barely surpasses 20,000 birr, she earned 12,000 birr monthly at Unity Kirkos, stratospheric by Ethiopian standards. A far cry from those desperate to get their big break and revamp their living conditions, the case usually of so many of those detained for drug trafficking by China.

A letter from Nazrawit Abera’s latest employer confirming her credentials and pay between November 2016 to December 2018

Her friends and family maintain that Nazrawit had no idea the shampoo bottles contained anything other than shampoo. Nazrawit was tricked into the deed by a lifelong friend, a former Ethiopian Airlines hostess named Simret Kahsay, they say. Her sister Abby tells us that Simret was supposed to be on that same flight to China with Nazrawit, but had to cancel for personal reasons at the last minute. Simret had agreed to tag along with Nazrawit on the trip, saying that she intended to deliver gifts to an unspecified associate in China. When she cancelled, she asked Nazrawit to go ahead without her, but to take the items to China for her. Nazrawit, trusting her friend, agreed without hesitation. She was told that the shampoo bottles, which came from Brazil, contained a special type of shampoo used uniquely for the cleaning of wigs and hair extensions. Nazrawit thought nothing of it. But, contends Abby, this should have rang alarms.

“What kind of shampoo comes from Brazil?” she was furious. “Who delivers shower products from Brazil to China? We have shampoo in Ethiopia.”

Indeed, in recent times a number of Ethiopians are reported to have been tricked in a similar manner. Citing the lucrative nature of drug deals in China due to the extremely high risk, drug traders unwilling to take the risk themselves, have resorted to sending unsuspecting innocent victims to China with their stash loaded in their baggage.

According to the Ministry of Information, one such scheme involved fake scholarships and swindling youths into traveling to China with a stash of khat, hidden in their luggage, unbeknownst to them. Khat, a stimulant widely available in Ethiopia, is also illegal in China. If caught upon arrival in China, with no scholarship awaiting them, the aspiring student is instead hauled over to a Chinese detention facility and charged with being a drug mule. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry warned travelers against taking obscure packages from suspicious, shady individuals. But in the case of Nazrawit Abera, this person was her best friend.

“She abused my sister’s trust!” Abby is adamant Simret tricked her to make a fast buck. “She threw her best friend in harm’s way for financial gain. She knew Nazri would never say no to a friend.” Mentioning Semret brought out a flurry of emotions. “She is fully accountable for this mess ,” she said while fighting back tears. “My sister is a career woman, not a drug trafficker. She is an innocent victim back-stabbed by someone she thought was her best friend.”

A phone number we were told belongs to Simret was switched off when Addis Standard called the number. Inquiries sent by private message to Simret’s Facebook account have gone unanswered.

The Ethiopian embassy is for now covering the legal expenses and has hired a lawyer, although Nazrawit is yet to see a lawyer or appear in court.

In an attempt to exonerate Nazrawit from any wrongdoing, the family provided local police with evidence of what happened. A warrant was issued for Simret’s arrest. She was eventually arrested after a friend informed authorities that she was planning to escape to Thailand. Despite the arrest, police have dilly dallied on pressing charges using the victim Nazrawit’s inability to testify against Simret in court as an excuse to stall the matter. Simret has since been let out on bail.

Abby says the family was livid. “Police told us Nazrawit needs to testify against her, but how can she do that if she’s in jail in China? They aren’t making sense.”

Nazrawit Abera during happier times (Image: Facebook)

An unnamed official from the Addis Abeba Police Commission who was at the institution when Addis Standard contacted the institution via phone confirmed that an individual named Simret Kahsay had indeed been arrested in a case related to a detainee in China. He would not name the detainee, nor comment when probed on what the charges were. He wouldn’t even confirm or deny that Simret had been freed on bail. All he would state was that he couldn’t issue a public statement about an investigation that is “ongoing.”

But Nazrawit’s family don’t believe that anything is ongoing. They feel there is no sincere effort by the police to hold Semret Kahsay accountable. “She is now out on a 20,000 birr bail,” Abby explains. “After endangering the life of her best friend and putting us into the hell we are in today, she walks free. The police don’t care.”

Headquarters of the Addis Abeba Police Commission in Nazrawit Abera’s hometown. The police appear hesitant to press on with a criminal case against Simret Kahsay, a former Ethiopian Airlines hostess accused of tricking her best friend into traveling with shampoo bottles of cocaine en route to China. Photo: Addis Standard

“We have evidence, proof that she gave Nazrawit the bottles,” Abby adds. “She admitted this to us herself before attempting to disappear. The police aren’t even willing to examine this evidence!”

Abby shared with Addis Standard two audio files of what the family say is a phone conversation between Simret and Nazrawit’s other sister Betty Abera. In the Amharic language recording, the individual responding to the name Simret Kahsay is emotional and admits to having given the bottles of shampoo to Nazrawit, although denies knowing that there were drugs in them when she handed them to her. When asked who Nazrawit was supposed to deliver the shampoo too, the individual says “I don’t know him, I just have a phone number.” Betty confronts her and accuses her of putting Nazrawit in harm’s way at which point the other person begins to cry. Addis Standard has not been able to authenticate the audio files and are as of yet unable to find a friend or relative who can attest to the voice in the audio being Simret’s.

Nazrawit has a brother who works as a pilot with Ethiopian Airlines and is able to travel regularly to China. He has been denied access to his sister. An embassy consular official who has seen her once says that Nazrawit is doing well, amid her circumstances. Nazrawit has reportedly requested that the consular officials bring her a Bible.

“Nazri is strong, free spirited and a very loving friend,” says Hirut Walelign, a friend in Addis Abeba who told Addis Standard that she has been left feeling a profound sadness since Nazrawit’s ordeal began. “I’ve been unable to process this,” she said with an obvious lump in her throat. “She doesn’t deserve this. She always looked out for our interests and I’ve gained so much from her. I’m asking that she be released from the stressful, lonely place she finds herself in.”

An online petition calling for her release is being circulated by Nazrawit’s friends and former classmates at Addis Abeba’s Lideta Cathedral School where Nazrawit completed her high school education. Over 10,000 signatures in under 24 hours were collected by concerned fellow citizens. “I’m signing this because I know she is innocent,” writes Birhane Abush, among those who signed the petition. “It is her friend who got Nazrawit into all this mess.”

Among the petition organizers, Ermo Walelign described the heartache at hearing of the plight his friend currently finds herself in.

“Nazrawit is a thoughtful, caring soul. Someone who worries about your well-being and will stay by your side while you are down,” he said. “A true heartfelt friend unlike any other.”

“I know her as being a hardworking, dedicated professional, someone who could hold down two or three jobs at the same time. Someone who always looks forward, who seeks to advance, improve. It hurt me to find out what she has been put through. Nevertheless, I have faith that we will see her back home with us one day.”

Ermo Walelign says he has faith his close friend Nazrawit will return to Ethiopia safe (Image: Facebook)

Neither the Chinese embassy in Addis Abeba nor the country’s Foreign Ministry responded to emails soliciting information on the case. The Ethiopian Embassy meanwhile wouldn’t discuss specifics about the case and stated that details could only be requested from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson.

That spokesman, Nebiat Getachew spoke with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew last week. and told him that there were currently 22 Ethiopians embroiled in China’s legal system facing various charges.

Nazrawit’s mother has not been told about her daughter’s legal battle; “it would crush her”, Abby says. Despite this, after detecting something was wrong with her daughter’s disappearance and her family’s lack of an explanation, she had a panic attack and collapsed. Tragically the fall has rendered her a paraplegic, Addis Standard is told. Abby now has the additional task of caring for her mother. AS

Editor’s Note: A Photo of Simret Kahsay was published in the original copy of this story. However, although the photo is that of the accused, we have decided to remove it as the case is still pending in the court of law.

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