Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests

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State security forces in Ethiopia have used excessive and lethal force against largely peaceful protests that have swept through Oromia, the country’s largest region, since November 2015. Over 400 people are estimated to have been killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested, and hundreds, likely more, have been victims of enforced disappearances.

The protests began on November 12, 2015, in Ginchi, a small town 80 kilometers southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which is surrounded by Oromia region and home to most of Ethiopia’s estimated 35 million Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. The decision of authorities in Ginchi to clear a forest and football field for an investment project triggered protests in at least 400 different locations across all the 17 zones in Oromia.

Security forces, according to witnesses, shot into crowds, summarily killing people during mass roundups, and torturing detained protesters. Because primary and secondary school students in Oromia were among the early protesters, many of those arrested or killed were children under the age of 18. Security forces, including members of the federal police and the military, have arbitrarily arrested students, teachers, musicians, opposition politicians, health workers, and people who provided assistance or shelter to fleeing students. Although many have been released, an unknown number of those arrested remain in detention without charge, and without access to legal counsel or family members.

This report is based on more than 125 interviews with witnesses, victims, and government officials. It documents the most significant patterns of human rights violations during the Oromo protests from late 2015 until May 2016.

In November 2015 when the protests started, protesters initially focused their concerns on the federal government’s approach to development, particularly the proposed expansion of the capital’s municipal boundary through the Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan (“the Master Plan”). Protesters feared that the Master Plan would further displace Oromo farmers, many of whom have been displaced for development projects over the past decade. Such developments have benefitted a small elite while having a negative impact on local farmers and communities.

As the protests continued, the government in mid-January 2016 made a rare concession and announced the cancellation of the Master Plan. But by then protester grievances had widened due to the brutality of the government response, particularly the high death toll and mass arrests. Farmers and other community members joined the protesting students, raising broader economic, political and cultural grievances shared by many in the ethnic Oromo community.

Human Rights Watch’s research indicates that security forces repeatedly used lethal force, including live ammunition, to break up many of the 500 reported protests that have occurred since November 2015. The vast majority of protesters interviewed described police and soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowds with little or no warning or use of non-lethal crowd-control measures, including water and rubber bullets.

Security forces regularly arrested dozens of people at each protest, and in many locations security forces went door-to door-at night arresting students and those accommodating students in their homes. Security forces also specifically targeted for arrest those perceived to be influential members of the Oromo community, such as musicians, teachers, opposition members and others thought to have the ability to mobilize the community for further protests. Many of those arrested and detained by the security forces have been children under age 18. Security forces have tortured and otherwise ill-treated detainees, and several female detainees described being raped by security force personnel. Very few detainees have had access to legal counsel, adequate food, or to their family members.

Many of those interviewed for this report described the scale of the crackdown as unprecedented in their communities. As 52-year-old Yoseph from West Wollega zone put it, “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… All the young people are arrested and our farmers are being harassed or arrested.”

The Ethiopian government has claimed that protesters are connected to banned opposition groups, a common government tactic to discredit popular dissent, and has charged numerous opposition members under the country’s repressive counterterrorism law. Respected opposition leader Bekele Gerba is one of 23 senior members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), a legally registered political party, who have been charged under the counterterrorism law after spending four months in detention. Bekele has been a staunch advocate for non-violence and for the OFC’s continued participation in Ethiopia’s flawed electoral processes. Students peacefully protesting in front of the United States embassy in Addis Ababa have also been charged under the criminal code.

Students’ access to education, from primary schools to universities, has also been disrupted in many locations because of the presence of security forces in and around schools, because teachers or students have been arrested, or because students are afraid to come to class. Schools were temporarily closed by government officials for weeks in some locations to dissuade protests.

The brutal response of the security forces is the latest in a series of abuses against those who express real or perceived dissent in Oromia. Between April and June 2014, security forces killed dozens of people when they used excessive force against demonstrators in western Oromia who raised concerns about the Master Plan. To date the government has failed to conduct or support an independent investigation into the killings and arbitrary arrests in 2014.

The Ethiopian government has also increased its efforts to restrict media freedom already dire in Ethiopia and block access to information in Oromia. In March, the government began restricting access to social media sites in the region, apparently because Facebook and other social media platforms have been key avenues for the dissemination of information. The government has also jammed diaspora-run television stations, such as the US-based Oromia Media Network (OMN), and destroyed private satellite dishes at homes and businesses.

The Ethiopian government should drop charges and release all those who have been arbitrarily detained and should support a credible, independent and transparent investigation into the use of excessive force by its security forces. It should discipline or prosecute as appropriate those responsible and provide victims of abuses with adequate compensation. These steps are essential to rebuild much-needed confidence between the Oromo community and the Ethiopian government.

Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown also warrants a much stronger, united response from the international community. While the European Parliament has passed a strong resolution condemning the crackdown and another resolution has been introduced in the United States Senate, these are exceptions in an otherwise severely muted international response to the crackdown in Oromia. Ethiopian repression poses a serious threat to the country’s long-term stability and economic ambitions. Concerted international pressure on the Ethiopian government to support a credible and independent investigation is essential. Given that a national process is unlikely to be viewed as sufficiently independent of the government, the inquiry should have an international component. Finally, Ethiopia’s international development partners should also reassess their development programming in Oromia to ensure that aid is not being used directly, indirectly or inadvertently to facilitate the forced displacement of populations in violation of Ethiopian and international law.

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