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Activists in prison jumpsuits and handcuffs protest human rights abuses against the Oromo people in Ethiopia at a demonstration in London, October 10, 2020. © 2020 David Cliff/NurPhoto via AP

(Nairobi) – Ethiopian authorities should immediately release seven Oromo opposition figures arbitrarily detained for around three years purely for their political role, Human Rights Watch said today. These cases underscore the urgent need for Ethiopia’s government to reform the country’s justice system.

Oromia police have held seven senior members of the opposition political party, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a once-banned political opposition group that for decades fought a low-level insurgency for the self-determination of Oromos. Since 2020, authorities have detained Abdi Regassa, Dawit Abdeta, Lammi Begna, Michael Boran, Kenessa Ayana, and Gaada Oljira, and, since 2021, Gaada Gebissa – despite multiple judicial orders directing their release. The authorities have provided no legal basis for their long-term detentions without charge.

“Police authorities are making a mockery of Ethiopia’s justice system through the prolonged and cruel detention without charge of the Oromo opposition politicians,” said Laetitia Bader, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government should immediately release them and ensure that wrongful detention is no longer used as a tool of political repression.”

Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international human rights organizations have documented arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to stifle dissent in Ethiopia for decades. Despite the government’s promises to reform the criminal justice system in 2018, many of the weaknesses and gaps have not been fixed.

Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone a total of nine relatives, defense team lawyers, and an OLF party official, and reviewed court documents and medical records.

Oromia police authorities have repeatedly violated the detainees’ due process rights, forcibly disappearing them or holding them incommunicado, denying them access to their lawyers and family members for weeks or months – and at times up to eight months – and frequently moving them between makeshift and official detention sites, further hampering their families’ access.

Government security forces arrested Abdi Regassa, a member of the party’s executive committee, in late February 2020, on suspicion of killing a police officer in Burayu on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Police held him at a government office in the Sidist Kilo neighborhood in Addis Ababa before his eventual transfer to a Burayu police station. His whereabouts remained unknown to lawyers and family members for over two months. Oromia police have since transferred him to at least eight different detention sites in Oromia, including the Oromia regional police special forces camp in the town of Gelan, where he was kept incommunicado for eight months.

Police arrested Lammi Begna, Dawit Abdeta, Kenessa Ayana, and Michael Boran in July 2020, along with dozens of other opposition figures and journalists soon after the assassination of an Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa. Oromia police frequently shifted the detainees’ locations, including holding them at a former poultry farm outside Awash Melkassa, used by Oromia Special Forces, without notifying their family members or lawyers. One relative said that the police had transferred his brother to about 14 detention sites since his arrest.

“We didn’t know where they were, how they were doing,” a family member of one of the detainees said. “We lost hope, our hope that they were even alive.… There was a time we were going to police stations and asking where they were taken to, and if they were alive or not.…The police would tell us that they didn’t know where they were.”

In April 2023, Oromia police authorities moved the seven detainees from a Burayu police station and then withheld their whereabouts. It was only after two weeks that family members discovered where they were held. People interviewed said they believed that the detainees’ disappearance occurred the day before Ethiopia’s national electoral board was expected to visit them.

The detainees reappeared a week later in the town of Dukem, 37 kilometers southeast of Addis. “The police didn’t mention or give any explanation for why they were transferred from Burayu to Dukem,” said a defense team lawyer. “All seven were imprisoned in a nine-square-meter room with bad sanitary conditions.”

Refusal to disclose the whereabouts or circumstances of someone in government custody constitutes an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international human rights law, and a crime under international criminal law.

Regional and federal courts have called for the release of all the detainees, yet authorities have appealed and flouted judicial orders. Regional state prosecutors closed case files against Michael Boran, Kenessa Ayana, and Gaada Gebissa due to lack of evidence between November 2021 and January 2022, yet all remain detained without charge. Gaada Oljira has never been formally charged.

The authorities dropped the initial murder charges against Abdi Regassa, only to accuse him of one count of telecommunication fraud and two counts under the country’s anti-terrorism law. The Oromia Supreme Court acquitted him of those charges and ordered he be released on June 24, 2021. On March 29, 2021, the Oromia Supreme Court upheld its dismissal of charges against Lammi Begna and Dawit Abdeta for the second time, only for Oromia police to rearrest them as they left the court. Rather than abide by the ruling, the Oromia public prosecutor appealed all three release decisions to the Federal Supreme Court, which upheld the release orders of the lower courts.

Oromia police continued to detain the opposition figures, despite a district court ruling in favor of a habeas court petition filed by defense lawyers for four of the detainees in July 2022, ordering them freed.

Family members, lawyers, and other opposition members say they believe that they have exhausted all options and are at a loss as to how to challenge the continued detentions. “With their cases, there is no due process of law,” one relative said. “This is something that worries us, that puzzles us.… There are no [more] court hearings ... They were never given any sentence, they were [meant] to be released. But now they are spending years in detention.”

Prolonged detention without charge or trial or without an appearance before a judge is arbitrary and violates Ethiopian law, African regional law, and international human rights law.

In May 2022, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC), a federal body, reported on the detentions of the OLF figures, found that they had been held “without due process,” and called for their release and right to a remedy.

Family members and defense lawyers have been particularly concerned about the detainees’ deteriorating health and well-being. While the authorities have allowed detainees to receive treatment, care has been delayed, interrupted, and inadequate, or otherwise denied, former detainees and relatives have said. Kenessa Ayana’s health rapidly deteriorated in detention, and he now suffers from chronic diabetics and liver complications and needs crutches or a wheelchair to move. Gaada Gebissa suffers from a Hepatitis B infection.

Ethiopian authorities should ensure that all detainees are treated with humanity and in accordance with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, including access to the adequate and specialized medical care and treatment they require, and contact with their relatives. They should also compensate the detainees for their mistreatment in detention and for the violation of their due process rights.

Oromia authorities should immediately release the seven opposition figures, Human Rights Watch said. Under Ethiopian law, the federal Ministry of Justice also has the responsibility to ensure the rule of law and enforce criminal law, including by “follow[ing] the implementation and enforcement of judgments and orders given by courts under criminal case,” and taking corrective action if court orders have not been enforced. The Ministry of Justice should also ensure that police and prosecuting authorities implement court decisions and hold officials to account when they fail to discharge their duties and respect the rights of the accused.

“The denial of key legal protections, use of forced disappearances, and outright refusal to abide by judicial orders are serious rights abuses,” Bader said. “The government needs to ensure the long overdue release of the political detainees and carry out fundamental justice reforms.”

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