The Ethiopian government should launch an immediate investigation leading to the prosecution and dismissal of all federal police involved in the recurring practice of torture of people caught up in mass arrests, Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a letter addressed to the Ethiopian ministers of federal affairs and of justice.

“Failure by the ministers to investigate and prosecute makes them accomplices in torture under international law,” Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division, said. “It’s time to assign individual blame for allowing repeated brutality.”

Between 330 and 350 male and female students were arrested at the University of Addis Ababa on January 20, 2004, after the students failed to disperse at the request of university officials. The students were peaceably assembled on university grounds to protest the arrest of other students two days earlier.

The students arrested on January 20 were taken to the Kolfe police training academy in Addis Ababa where they were ordered to run and crawl barefoot, bare-kneed, and bare-armed over sharp gravel for three and a half hours. Students also were forced to carry each other over the gravel, inflicting even greater pain on the soles of their feet. This torment was repeated in the early hours of January 21. All but fourteen of the students were released later on January 21 without charges.

Federal police have used the same method of torture previously. Human Rights Watch documented the practice at other federal police camps in a 2003 report, “Lessons in Repression.” Last year, an Ethiopian human rights organization reported the use of identical forms of torture after mass arrests at an Addis Ababa church.

The International Convention against Torture, to which Ethiopia has been a party since 1994, requires impartial and prompt investigations when there are reasonable grounds for believing torture has been committed. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ethiopia is a party, and the Ethiopian constitution also prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to protection from bodily harm.

Complicity in torture is an offense under the Convention against Torture. Because identical physical abuse occurred at Kolfe and other federal police facilities in the recent past, “the ministries' leadership is on notice of and complicit in these abuses,” the Human Rights Watch letter states.

The letter is addressed to Abaye Tsehaye, the Minister of Federal Affairs, who exercises supervision over the federal police, and to Harka Haroye, who exercises prosecutorial authority.