In the wake of last week’s election-related protests, the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on potential sources of unrest has spread throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today. While international attention has focused on events in Addis Ababa, opposition members and students in other cities are increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrest and torture.
The current wave of arrests followed a chaotic week in Addis Ababa that saw security forces put down a series of election-related protests with excessive force. The disorder in the capital reached a bloody peak on Wednesday, when security forces responded to incidents of rock-throwing and looting by opening fire indiscriminately on large crowds of people, killing at least 36 and wounding more than 100.
The Ethiopian government has refused to accept any responsibility for the shootings, insisting that the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was wholly to blame because of its alleged involvement in organizing the protests in defiance of a citywide ban on demonstrations in the capital.
“Opposition rhetoric may well have contributed to last week’s unrest, but the government must take responsibility for the conduct of its own security forces,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces have killed dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country.”
Since protests over alleged electoral fraud in the country’s May 15 elections erupted last week in Addis Ababa and several other towns, police and other security officials have detained several thousand people throughout Ethiopia. Many of those swept up in the initial round of mass arrests in the capital and elsewhere have since been released, but smaller-scale arrests targeting CUD supporters and student activists have continued unabated.
The Ethiopian Constitution mandates that detainees be taken to court within 48 hours of their arrest and informed of the reasons for their detention. However, almost none of the people swept up in the past week’s arrests have been brought before a judge.
The situation of individuals detained in towns relatively far from the capital is of particular concern, as little is known about their total numbers, the reasons for their arrest or the conditions under which they are being held. Local officials in many towns have cast a very wide net, arbitrarily detaining individuals they suspect of being sympathetic to last week’s demonstrations. Most of these detainees are locally prominent CUD members and students.
“Given the Ethiopian security forces’ long record of detainee abuse, there is every reason to worry that those arrested are being mistreated,” Gagnon said. “This is especially true for those who have been detained in towns far from the media spotlight that has focused on Addis Ababa in recent days.”
Human Rights Watch has obtained reports of mass arrests in at least nine cities outside of Addis Ababa since last Monday. In Gondar, Bure, Bahir Dar, Debre Markos, Dessie and Awassa, several hundred students were arrested after police forcibly put down peaceful election-related student demonstrations. Police subsequently released many of those detained, but at least several dozen students remain in detention without charge.
In addition, security forces in Gondar, Dessie, Wondo Genet, Kombolcha and Jinka have arrested several dozen locally prominent CUD members over the course of the past several days. Unconfirmed reports of arrests following a similar pattern have emerged from several other towns. Government officials have offered no public acknowledgement of or explanation for any of these arrests.
Security forces have also continued to arrest large numbers of CUD supporters in the capital over the course of the past several days. They have also detained three investigators for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, all of whom had been working to gather information about the continuing arrests.
Large numbers of prisoners are being held at the Ziway detention facility, about 150 kilometers south of the capital. The total number of detainees being held there is unknown, and the government has not allowed any outside groups to access the facility. Some of the students recently released from the Sendafa detention facility, 40 kilometers north of Addis Ababa, after being detained last Monday reported that they were forced to perform a series of exhausting drills and exercises as a form of punishment.
“The Ethiopian security forces’ long history of mistreating detainees arrested for political reasons is hardly a secret,” said Gagnon. “The international community should call on the Ethiopian government to immediately open up these detention facilities to international scrutiny.”
On several occasions over the course of the past four years, police beat and tortured large numbers of university and secondary school students they arrested following student protests in Addis Ababa and in towns throughout Oromia region. Many of those student detainees were kept in prison for weeks or months without ever being brought before a judge. Security forces have subjected other perceived dissidents to similarly abusive treatment and prolonged periods of arbitrary detention.
Last week’s bloodshed in Addis Ababa was also not the first time that Ethiopian security forces have killed large numbers of protesters. In April 2001, police killed more than 30 people and wounded an estimated 400 more in putting down a student demonstration at Addis Ababa University. And in May 2002, police opened machine-gun fire on protesters in Awassa, killing an estimated 38 people.