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(Nairobi) – Clear patterns of government repression against peaceful protesters, activists, and journalists emerged across the East and Horn of Africa region during 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Governments in the region should do far more to protect freedoms of expression and association, and provide justice for crimes by government security forces.

In the ongoing conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia, national armed forces and armed groups attacked civilians. Fighting has displaced millions of people, both internally and across borders to neighboring countries. Ethiopia stood out during the year as an example of positive change, with Abiy Ahmed, who was appointed prime minister in April, carrying out many significant reforms.

“We are seeing an alarming backsliding on human rights in East Africa and in the Horn as governments use violence and repression to silence peaceful dissent, while failing to ensure accountability for abuses by their forces,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopia stands out as a counter-example to this regressive trend.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy announced a commitment to revise repressive laws, lifted the state of emergency, ordered the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, overturned bans on opposition political parties, and fired some abusive officials. Some prisons long associated with abuse, notably including Jail Ogaden, were closed, and steps were taken to increase the independence of key institutions, critical ahead of 2020 national elections.

In Kenya, security forces cracked down violently on protesters during elections in late 2017 and early 2018. The crackdown, largely in opposition strongholds, killed more than 100 people; and dozens of women and girls reported sexual assault. Kenyan authorities also targeted journalists during election periods for reporting on sensitive subjects such as corruption and security and silenced rights workers in Nairobi and western Kenya with arbitrary arrests, threats, and raids on their offices and homes.

Although the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution, said it had started investigations into police killings, Human Rights Watch found that no police officer has been held to account for crimes by security forces.

Ugandan security forces also violently dispersed protests; beating, arbitrarily detaining, and at times torturing, protesters, journalists, and opposition politicians. Thirty-four people, including six parliament members, arrested during by-election campaigns in Arua, northwestern Uganda and charged with treason, alleged torture by security forces. Despite government commitments to hold security forces accountable, Human Rights Watch found that many investigations into military and police abuse of civilians failed to progress, including an inquiry into the November 2016 killing of more than 100 civilians in Kasese.

Tanzania had a marked decline in respect for free expression, association, and assembly since the election of President John Magufuli in 2015, along with other human rights abuses. Authorities have harassed and detained journalists, opposition members, and activists; and used hostile rhetoric against sexual minorities, threatening to round-up suspected LGBTI people and subject them to forced anal exams and conversion therapy. Girls face discrimination in education following a 2017 ban on pregnant girls and young mothers in schools.

In Sudan, government forces attacked and destroyed dozens of villages in Jebel Mara, in Central Darfur, forcing thousands of people to flee. In Khartoum and other towns, security forces violently dispersed protests and detained activists, journalists, bloggers, and opposition politicians, bringing trumped up charges carrying the death penalty against activists. President Omar al-Bashir has evaded justice for crimes in Darfur, and Sudan has made little or no progress toward accountability.

In South Sudan, fighting between government and rebel forces continued despite a revitalized peace agreement signed in September. Government forces carried out abusive counter-insurgency operations in areas west of Wau; killing, looting and destroying villages, while sexual violence surged in the former Unity state. The country’s leaders have made no progress after its agreement to create an African Union-South Sudanese hybrid court to try the most serious crimes committed since the start of the war five years ago.

In Somalia, fighting, insecurity, lack of protection by the government, and recurring humanitarian crises had a devastating impact on civilians in 2018. Security forces unlawfully killed and wounded civilians during fighting over land and control of roadblocks, and disarmament operations, particularly in Mogadishu and Lower Shabelle. There were targeted attacks on media, including harassment, and arbitrary detention, with authorities seldom investigating killings or attacks on journalists. The government has made no tangible progress reining in abusive security forces, notably the intelligence agency, or ending repeated forced evictions of displaced people.

In Eritrea, a July peace agreement with Ethiopia and the lifting of UN sanctions in October led to increased hope that draconian restrictions on basic freedoms and rights would be lifted, but there was little change in 2018. The country has no independent media, organized civil society, political parties, or judiciary, and arbitrary detention remains commonplace. Citizens are forced into national service for indefinite periods, often in the military, and thousands flee Eritrea each month.

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