(Nairobi) – Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 protesters and others, and arrested tens of thousands more during widespread protests in the Oromia region since November 2015. The Ethiopian government should urgently support a credible, independent investigation into the killings, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses.
The 61-page report. “‘Such a Brutal Crackdown’: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests,” details the Ethiopian government’s use of excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, mistreatment in detention, and restrictions on access to information to quash the protest movement. Human Rights Watch interviews in Ethiopia and abroad with more than 125 protesters, bystanders, and victims of abuse documented serious violations of the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly by security forces against protesters and others from the beginning of the protests in November 2015 through May 2016.
“Ethiopian security forces have fired on and killed hundreds of students, farmers, and other peaceful protesters with blatant disregard for human life,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately free those wrongfully detained, support a credible, independent investigation, and hold security force members accountable for abuses.”
Human Rights Watch found that security forces used live ammunition for crowd control repeatedly, killing one or more protesters at many of the hundreds of protests over several months. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have identified more than 300 of those killed by name and, in some cases, with photos.
The November protests were triggered by concerns about the government’s proposed expansion of the capital’s municipal boundary through the Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan. Protesters feared that the Master Plan would displace Oromo farmers, as has increasingly occurred over the past decade, resulting in a negative impact on farm communities while benefiting a small elite.
As protests continued into December, the government deployed military forces for crowd-control throughout Oromia. Security forces repeatedly fired live ammunition into crowds with little or no warning or use of non-lethal crowd-control measures. Many of those killed have been students, including children under 18.
The federal police and military have also arrested tens of thousands of students, teachers, musicians, opposition politicians, health workers, and people who provided assistance or shelter to fleeing students. While many detainees have been released, an unknown number remain in detention without charge and without access to legal counsel or family members.
Witnesses described the scale of the arrests as unprecedented. Yoseph, 52, from the Wollega zone, said: “I’ve lived here for my whole life, and I’ve never seen such a brutal crackdown. There are regular arrests and killings of our people, but every family here has had at least one child arrested.”
Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were tortured or mistreated in detention, including in military camps, and several women alleged that they were raped or sexually assaulted. Some said they were hung by their ankles and beaten; others described having electric shocks applied to their feet, or weights tied to their testicles. Video footage shows students being beaten on university campuses.
Despite the large number of arrests, the authorities have charged few individuals with any offenses. Several dozen opposition party members and journalists have been charged under Ethiopia’s draconian anti-terrorism law, while 20 students who protested in front of the United States embassy in Addis Ababa in March were charged with various offenses under the criminal code.
Access to education – from primary school to university – has been disrupted in many locations because of the presence of security forces in and around schools, the arrest of teachers and students, and many students’ fear of attending class. Authorities temporarily closed schools for weeks in some locations to deter protests. Many students told Human Rights Watch that the military and other security forces were occupying campuses and monitoring and harassing ethnic Oromo students.
There have been some credible reports of violence by protesters, including the destruction of foreign-owned farms, looting of government buildings, and other destruction of government property. However, the Human Rights Watch investigations into 62 of the more than 500 protests since November found that most have been peaceful.
The Ethiopian government’s pervasive restrictions on independent human rights investigations and media have meant that very little information is coming from affected areas. The Ethiopian government has also increased its efforts to restrict media freedom. Since mid-March it has restricted access to Facebook and other social media. It has also restricted access to diaspora television stations.
In January, the government announced the cancellation of the Master Plan. By then, however, protester grievances had widened due to the brutality of the government response.
While the protests have largely subsided since April, the government crackdown has continued, Human Rights Watch found. Many of those arrested over the past seven months remain in detention, and hundreds have not been located and are feared to have been forcibly disappeared. The government has not conducted a credible investigation into alleged abuses. Soldiers still occupy some university campuses and tensions remain high. The protests echo similar though smaller protests in Oromia in 2014, and the government’s response could be a catalyst for future dissent, Human Rights Watch said.
Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown warrants a much stronger, united response from concerned governments and intergovernmental organizations, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said. While the European Parliament has passed a strong resolution condemning the crackdown and a resolution has been introduced in the United States Senate, these are exceptions in an otherwise severely muted international response to the crackdown in Oromia. The UN Human Rights Council should address these serious abuses, call for the release of those arbitrarily detained and support an independent investigation.
“Ethiopia’s foreign supporters have largely remained silent during the government’s bloody crackdown in Oromia,” Lefkow said. “Countries promoting Ethiopia’s development should press for progress in all areas, notably the right to free speech, and justice for victims of abuse.”