The Ethiopian government must halt the violent crackdown on students from Oromiya regional state, Human Rights Watch urged today.

During the last two months, five students have been killed and dozens arrested as Oromiya state police have violently dispersed peaceful marches by high school students protesting regional governmental policies. Human Rights Watch also called on the Ethiopian government to immediately free all students detained last week in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa during a peaceful rally by Oromo students.

“Shooting at unarmed students is a shameful misuse of government power,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi, Academic Freedom director for Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government has to investigate and prosecute the authorities responsible for firing on the students.”

Last week, police in Addis Ababa arrested nearly 200 students from the different campuses of the national university. Some were released within two days, but others remain incarcerated. According to reports in the local press, the students had staged a peaceful march after the regional government, which is also headquartered in Addis Ababa, denied their requests for a meeting to discuss their concerns about their fellow students in Oromiya.

In March, high school students in several Oromiya towns staged protest marches against the regional government’s educational and land policies. The state authorities declared the protests to be illegal. In the town of Shambu, the police opened fire using live ammunition when students failed to disperse.

The regional government admitted that two students were killed by police gunfire, but the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the leading monitoring group in the country, said in its report on the clashes that five students were killed and about a dozen were wounded. The regional authorities also detained a number of students and teachers. There were also reports of shootings and injuries in two other towns, Ambo and Nekemte.

Oromiya is the largest and most populous Ethiopian state. Most of its residents are Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Federal and regional government authorities tend to view all forms of protest of their policies as instigated by the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which is leading a decade-long armed struggle for the autonomy of Oromiya.

Both the state government and federal police and the military have a history of repression and abuse, targeted mainly at Oromo intellectuals and community leaders who are viewed as sympathetic to the OLF. Refugees who have fled to neighboring countries in the past decade have told of widespread use of torture and extra-judicial killings in the region.