(Nairobi) – An Ethiopian government-backed paramilitary force summarily executed 10 men during a March 2012 operation in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region. Detailed information on the killings and other abuses by the force known as the “Liyu police” only came to light after a Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission to neighboring Somaliland in April.
On March 16 a Liyu police member fatally shot a resident of Raqda village, in the Gashaamo district of Somali region, who was trying to protect a fellow villager. That day, men from Raqda retaliated by killing seven Liyu police members, prompting a reprisal operation by dozens of Liyu police in four villages on March 16 and 17. During this operation the Liyu police force summarily executed at least 10 men who were in their custody, killed at least 9 residents in ensuing gunfights, abducted at least 24 men, and looted dozens of shops and houses.
“The killing of several Liyu police members doesn’t justify the force’s brutal retaliation against the local population,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Liyu police abuses in Somali region show the urgent need for the Ethiopian government to rein in this lawless force.”
The Ethiopian government should hold those responsible for the killings and other abuses to account and prevent future abuses by the force.
Ethiopian authorities created the Liyu (“special” in Amharic) police in the Somali region in 2007 when an armed conflict between the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the government escalated. By 2008 the Liyu police became a prominent counterinsurgency force recruited and led by the regional security chief at that time, Abdi Mohammed Omar (known as “Abdi Illey”), who is now the president of Somali Regional State.
The Liyu police have been implicated in numerous serious abuses against civilians throughout the Somali region in the context of counterinsurgency operations. The legal status of the force is unclear, but credible sources have informed Human Rights Watch that members have received training, uniforms, arms, and salaries from the Ethiopian government via the regional authorities.
Human Rights Watch spoke to 30 victims, relatives of victims, and witnesses to the March incidents from four villages who had fled across the border to Somaliland and who gave detailed accounts of the events.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of March 16 the Liyu police returned to Raqda following the clashes with the community earlier in the day that left seven police force members dead. The next morning, March 17, the Liyu police rounded up 23 men in Raqda and put them into a truck heading towards Galka, a neighboringvillage. Along the way the Liyu police stopped the truck, ordered five randomly selected men to descend, and shot them by the roadside. “It was three police who shot them,” a detainee told Human Rights Watch. “They shot them in the forehead and shoulder: three bullets per person.”
Also on March 17, at about 6 a.m., Liyu police in two vehicles opened an assault on the nearby village of Adaada. Survivors of the attack and victims’ relatives described Liyu police members going house to house searching for firearms and dragging men from their homes. The Liyu police also started shooting in the air. Local residents with arms and the Liyu police began fighting and at least four villagers were killed. Many civilians fled the village.
After several hours the Liyu police left but later returned when villagers came back to the village to bury those killed earlier that day. Fighting resumed in the afternoon and at least another five villagers were killed. The Liyu police took another four men from their homes and summarily executed them. A woman whose brother was a veterinarian told Human Rights Watch: “They caught my brother and took him outside. They shot him in the head and then slit his throat.”
For five days Liyu police also deployed outside Langeita, another village in the district, and restricted people’s movement. The Liyu police carried out widespread looting of shops and houses in at least two of the villages, residents said.
Human Rights Watch received an unconfirmed report that following the incidents local authorities arrested three Liyu police members. However it is unclear whether the members have been charged or whether further investigations have taken place.
The Ethiopian government’s response to reports of abuses in the Somali region has been to severely restrict or control access for journalists, aid organizations, human rights groups, and other independent monitors. Ethiopia’s regional and federal government should urgently facilitate access for independent investigations of the events by independent media and human rights investigators, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary executions.
“For years the Ethiopian government has jailed and deported journalists for reporting on the Somali region,” Lefkow said. “Donor countries should call on Ethiopia to allow access to the media and rights groups so abuses can’t be hidden away.”
Liyu Police Abuses, March 2012
Summary Executions and Killings
Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses and relatives of the victims who described witnessing at least 10 summary executions by the Liyu police on March 16 and 17. The actual number may be higher.
On March 16 in Raqda, a Liyu police member shot dead Abdiqani Abdillahi Abdi after he intervened to stop the paramilitary from harassing and beating another villager. Several villagers heard the Liyu police member saying to Abdiqani, “What can you do for him?” and then heard the shot.
The shooting ignited a confrontation between the Liyu police and the local community. The nine Liyu police who were deployed in Raqda then left via the road to the neighboring village of Adaada. A number of Raqda residents, including members of Abdiqani’s family, took their weapons, went after the Liyu police, and reportedly killed seven of them in a confrontation that followed.
The next morning, on March 17 at around 11 a.m., the Liyu police selected five men from a group of 23 men they had detained in Raqda and were taking towards Galka village in a truck. The Liyu police forced the five men to sit by the roadside and then shot them. Another detainee described what happened:
In between Galka and Raqda they stopped the truck. There were four other Liyu police vehicles accompanying the truck. This was around 11 a.m. They told five of us to get out of the lorry. They [randomly] ordered five out – none in particular. The man standing near the lorry ordered them to “Kill them, shoot them.” It was three police who shot them. They shot them in the forehead and shoulder: three bullets per person.
Another detainee saw the five being shot in the head and said the Liyu police threatened the remaining detainees, saying, “We will kill you all like this.”
The same day the Liyu police summarily executed four men in Adaada, where they had carried out house-to-house searches that morning. In all four cases multiple witnesses described the victims as unarmed and in custody when they were shot, either in the neck or head, shortly after having been dragged from their homes.
Witnesses described the summary execution of a veterinarian. The Liyu police dragged him from his home and shot him in the head, but when they realized that he was not dead, they slit his throat. The veterinarian’s middle-aged sister told Human Rights Watch:
They entered the home and asked where the man responsible for the home was. There were seven of them. They caught my brother and took him outside. They shot him in the head and then slit his throat. After killing him, they asked my niece where her father’s rifle was, but she could not find the keys and they hit her on the back of the shoulder with the butt of a gun.
Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that a teenage boy was dragged from his uncle’s home, taken nearby, momentarily interrogated, and then shot. One witness heard him reciting a prayer before being killed. His body was left on the ground near a trash dump. A third victim, an elderly man, was taken from outside his home, interrogated for a short time, and then shot while standing. Several witnesses heard him pleading with the police to spare his life. The fourth victim was also taken from his home and shot shortly after.
At least nine other men were killed by the Liyu police in Adaada, but the circumstances of their deaths are unclear. There was armed resistance to the Liyu police attack, and some of the nine may have been armed. However, according to witnesses, the Liyu police shot several men, in the upper body and head, who were trying to escape. Two men fleeing were reportedly run over by Liyu police vehicles.
Abductions, Torture, and Ill-Treatment
During the house searches in Adaada, the Liyu police abducted a number of village men and tortured and mistreated several people, including at least three women.
An Adaada resident, one of the first to be taken from his home on the morning of March 17, described to Human Rights Watch his treatment by the Liyu police:
They entered and told my wife to shut up. Four men entered the house with four waiting outside. They came over to me and took me. They also took the gun from my house. They hit me with the butt of a gun and took me to a small river near my home. They tied a belt around my neck. I lost consciousness. They threw me in a berket [small water hole] that was 15 meters deep and then they threw branches over me. There was mud in the berket. I managed to climb up when I woke up.
The Liyu police seriously beat at least three women during house searches in Adaada. A young woman said that Liyu police members who had entered her home beat her after she told them that her husband was absent: “They said I was lying, they kicked me and crushed my head with the back of the gun. I had some injuries in my kidney. I lost a tooth.”
Three men who had been abducted in Raqda on March 17 told Human Rights Watch they were each detained for nine days. During the first 24 hours they were without water. For four days the Liyu police drove them around in an open truck between villages and towns in an apparent attempt to hide them from local residents, and possibly also from federal authorities.
During the first four days of their detention they were beaten by the police with sticks and gun butts. On at least two occasions the paramilitaries guarding them threatened to execute them. However, disagreements among the Liyu police on how to proceed apparently saved the men’s lives. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch:
We were driving around different villages and some of the police said they should release us because the federal government will give them problems, they will discipline us, as we have committed a crime. Others said, “Let us kill all 24.” There were different ideas among the police.
After four days in the truck they were detained for at least another four days out in the sun near the village of Langeita, where they received only minimal food and water. After that the Liyu police took them to Gashaamo, where they were released on March 25 as a result of negotiations between the regional government and clan elders.
Residents of Adaada and Langeita described widespread looting of property, food, and money from shops and houses by the Liyu police. Six villagers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that their own houses, belongings, and property had been looted on March 17.
A 45-year-old woman from Langeita said that the Liyu police moved around the village in groups of five to seven and entered 10 stores. Two or three would enter a shop and steal shoes, clothes, drinks, and food. Two women said they could not return to their villages because they had lost all their property.
Reports from local authorities in neighbouring Somaliland suggest that discussions have taken place between clan elders from the affected villages and the regional authorities to negotiate a solution to the situation. None of the local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch had current plans to return to their homes.
Ethiopia’s Somali region has been the site of a low-level insurgency by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) for more than a decade. The ONLF, an ethnic Somali armed movement largely supported by members of the Ogaden clan, has sought greater political autonomy for the region. Following the ONLF’s April 2007 attack on the oil installation in Obole, which resulted in the deaths of 70 civilians and the capture of several Chinese oil workers, the Ethiopian government carried out a major counterinsurgency campaign in the five zones of the region primarily affected by the conflict.
Human Rights Watch’s June 2008 report of its investigation into abuses in the conflict found that the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the ONLF had committed war crimes between mid-2007 and early 2008, and that the Ethiopian armed forces could be responsible for crimes against humanity based on the patterns of executions, torture, rape, and forced displacement.
These abuses have never been independently investigated. Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry initiated an inquiry in late 2008 in response to the Human Rights Watch report, but that inquiry failed to meet the basic requirements of independence, timeliness, and confidentiality that credible investigations require. The government has repeatedly ignored calls for an independent inquiry into the abuses in the region.
Since the escalation of fighting in 2007 the Ethiopian government has imposed tight controls on access to Somali region for independent journalists and human rights monitors. In July 2011 two Swedish journalists who entered the region to report on the conflict were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 11 years in prison under Ethiopia’s vague and overbroad anti-terrorism law.
Gashaamo district, where the March 2012 events took place, is in Dhagabhur zone, one of the five affected by the conflict. However, it was not an area directly affected by fighting in previous years, and is largely populated by members of the ethnic Somali Isaaq clan, who are not generally perceived to be a source of support for the ONLF.