The Ethiopian government must urgently establish clear restraints on the use of lethal force against civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 24, security forces killed at least fifteen and perhaps as many as thirty-eight farmers demonstrating against a change in the administrative status of Awassa, the capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples State.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC), an independent human rights group that investigated the Awassa shootings, reported that the police fired indiscriminately at the protestors. Security agents used machine guns mounted on armored vehicles to fire into the group of unarmed farmers. EHRC documented the deaths of twenty-five protesters and found twenty-six more injured. Twelve of those killed were children.

“There is simply no excuse for shooting into crowds of civilians,” said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government must take immediate steps to ensure that state and federal police cease such practices and prosecute those responsible for shooting demonstrators.”

The Ethiopian federal Ministry of Information acknowledges seventeen deaths, including two policemen.

The Awassa killings come shortly after police shootings in Shambu, Ambo, and other towns in Oromiya State, resulting in five acknowledged student deaths. Oromiya is Ethiopia’s largest and most populous state. A year earlier, police killed at least forty civilians and injured 400 others when they violently cracked down on student demonstrations at the capital’s Addis Ababa University. Rapid deployment forces of the federal and regional police also killed two at a meeting in Siraro Woreda in Oromiya last year. The government has failed to prosecute police officers responsible for shooting at these demonstrators.

In a letter to resident diplomatic and humanitarian communities in Ethiopia, the Oromiya State Council claimed that a lack of non-lethal crowd control equipment was responsible for the March killings. Yet foreign donors have devoted significant resources to improving the capacity of the Ethiopian federal and regional police over the past decade. It is clear under international standards that intentional use of lethal force by law enforcement officials is permissible only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

“The governments’ unwillingness to permit free assembly, in violation of the country’s constitution, has been a precipitating cause of the recent police abuses,” said Takirambudde. “Ethiopia should lift restrictions on peaceful meetings and to prevent the police from arbitrarily banning and dispersing nonviolent protest demonstrations.”