In a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Human Rights Watch today called on the government of Ethiopia to charge, in a regular criminal court, or to release prominent members of the Oromo ethnic group detained in early November.

Although they have not been charged, the government has publicly accused them of having links to the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and of involvement in bombings that took place in the capital Addis Ababa earlier this year.

Eight of the detainees are members of the board of directors of the Human Rights League, a human rights monitoring and education group established in December 1996 by members of the Oromo community in Addis Ababa. Despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing the freedom of association, the government failed to grant the League the legal status it has applied for since its inception.

The full text of the letter follows.

November 18, 1997

His Excellency Meles Zenawi
Prime Minister Office
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: 251-1-552-030

Your Excellency,

We are writing to express our concern about the detention without charge of prominent members of the Oromo community. Our information indicates that the following individuals and others remain in detention at the Central Investigation Bureau of the police since their arrests in the first week of November:

Beyene Abdi
Beyene Belissa
Hussein Abdi
Haji Sahlu Kebte
Gabissa Lemessa
Tilahun Hirpasa
Zewde Chmada
Addisu Beyene
Garoma Bekele
Adam Hassan
Adungna Fitee
Mohamed Wayu
Gadissa Boltossa

Although they were not officially charged, your government has accused them publicly of being members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and of involvement in the recent bombings that took place in Addis Ababa and other urban centers.

The first eight named above reportedly are members of the board of directors of the Human Rights League, established among the Oromo in Addis Ababa in December 1996. Garoma Bekele is the secretary general of the League. Notwithstanding constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, and broad provisions for the protection of fundamental human rights in the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, your government has not granted the league the legal status it, applied for at its inception, despite its compliance with all legal requirements.

Addissu Beyene is the former chairman of Oromo Relief Organization (ORA) that the government dissolved in August 1995, after publicly accusing it of having links with the OLF. Although this specific allegation was never brought before a court of law, a number of ORA workers were harassed and arbitrarily detained.

The Human Rights League's objectives, according to its brochure, are to provide human rights education, monitor and report on human rights abuses, and provide legal aid to victims of violations. It is ironic, therefore, that eight members of its board and its only full-time staff member are now held incommunicado, apparently for their human rights activities. They are reportedly denied access to their families and doctors. The denial of access to personal physicians raises grave concerns for the well-being of elderly board members, particularly Tilahun Tirpassa, Hussein Abdi, Beyene Belissa and other elderly detainees requiring medical care. Eyewitnesses stated they saw Beyene Belissa, who is disabled, being dragged by policemen into a court house for a court appearance on November 11 where the detainees were remanded in custody. Police reportedly smashed both his operational and artificial legs during his arrest. We are also concerned about the notoriously harsh detention conditions at the Central Investigation Bureau and the reports of ill-treatment of those held there.

We urge your government to free immediately these detainees and others held in any security detention or to charge them with a crime in a regular criminal court. We urge your government to respect the physical and mental integrity of detainees and to give their families, doctors and lawyers immediate access to them.

Sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch/Africa
CC: Ambassador Berhane Gebre-Christos, Embassy of Ethiopia