Crackdown on protests continues in Ethiopia's Oromia region: HRW
Feb 24, Oromia: Ethiopian security forces are violently suppressing the largely peaceful protests in the Oromia region that began in November 2015, Human Rights Watch said. Almost daily accounts of killings and arbitrary arrests have been reported to HRW since 2016 began.
Security forces, including military personnel, have fatally shot scores of demonstrators. Thousands of people have been arrested and remain in detention without charge. While the frequency of protests appears to have decreased in the last few weeks, the crackdown continues.
The Ethiopian government has said that the situation in Oromia is largely under control following the government's retraction on January 12 of the proposed “Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan.” The controversial proposal to expand the municipal boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into farmland in Oromia sparked the initial demonstrations.
The plan's cancellation did not halt the protests however, and the crackdown continued throughout Oromia. In late January 2016, HRW interviewed approximately 60 protesters and other witnesses from various parts of the Oromia region in December and January, who described human rights violations during the protests, some since mid-January. They said that security forces have shot randomly into crowds, summarily killed people during arrests, carried out mass roundups, and tortured detainees.
While there have been some reports of violence during the protests, including the destruction of some foreign-owned farms and looting of some government buildings, most of the protests since November have been peaceful. On February 12, federal security forces fired on a bus after a wedding, killing four people, provoking further protests. A February 15 clash between federal security forces and armed men believed to be local police or militias, resulted in the deaths of seven security officers, according to the government.
Security forces have arrested students, teachers, government officials, businesspeople, opposition politicians, healthcare workers, and people who provide assistance or shelter to fleeing students. Because primary and secondary school students in Oromia were among the first to protest, many of those arrested have been children, under age 18.
HRW spoke to 20 people who had been detained since the protests began on November 12, none of whom had been taken before a judge. Fourteen people said they were beaten in detention, sometimes severely. Several students said they were hung up by their wrists while they were whipped. An 18-year-old student said he was given electric shocks to his feet. All the students interviewed said that the authorities accused them of mobilizing other students to join the protests. Several women who were detained alleged that security officers sexually assaulted and otherwise mistreated them in detention.
The descriptions fit wider patterns of torture and ill-treatment of detainees that HRW and other rights groups have documented in Oromia's many official and secret detention facilities. Numerous witnesses and former detainees said that security forces are using businesses and government buildings in West Shewa and Borana zones as makeshift detention centers.
At time of writing, some schools and universities remain closed throughout Oromia because the authorities have arrested teachers and closed facilities to prevent further protests, or students do not attend as a form of protest or because they fear arrest. Many students said they were released from detention on the condition that they would not appear in public with more than one other individual, and several said they had to sign a document making this commitment as a condition for their release.
HRW has not been able to verify the total numbers of people killed and arrested given restrictions on access and independent reporting in Ethiopia. Activists allege that more than 200 people have been killed since November 12, 2015, based largely on material collated from social media videos, photos, and web posts. Available information suggests that several thousand people have been arrested, many of whose whereabouts are unknown, which would be a forcible disappearance.
HRW has documented 12 additional killings previously unreported. Most of these occurred in Arsi and Borana Zones in southern Oromia, where protests have also been taking place but have received less attention than elsewhere. This suggests that the scale of the protests and abuses across Oromia may be greater than what has been reported, it said.
The Ethiopian government's pervasive restrictions on independent civil society groups and media have meant that very little information is coming from affected areas. However, social media contains photos and videos of the protests, particularly from November and December.
The Oromia Media Network (OMN) has played a key role in disseminating information throughout Oromia during the protests. OMN is a diaspora-based television station that relays content, primarily in the Afan Oromo language, via satellite, and recently started broadcasting on shortwave radio. The Ethiopian government has reportedly jammed OMN 15 times since it began operations in 2014, in contravention of international regulations. Two business owners told Human Rights Watch they were arrested for showing OMN in their places of business. Federal police destroyed satellites dishes that were receiving OMN in many locations. Students said they were accused of providing videos for social media and of communicating information to the OMN. Arrests and fear of arrest has resulted in less information on abuses coming out of Oromia over the last month.
The Ethiopian government should end the excessive use of force by the security forces, free everyone detained arbitrarily, and conduct an independent investigation into killings and other security force abuses, HRW said. Those responsible for serious rights violations should be appropriately prosecuted and victims of abuses should receive adequate compensation.
The Oslo Times/HRW