International rights group, Amnesty International, AI, has cautioned the Ethiopian government against returning to the authoritarian days of mass arrests after a report that about 1,200 persons are currently in detention.
Authorities arrested more than 1,200 people after violence erupted in and around the capital this month, a senior police official said, three times more than earlier estimates.
Twenty-eight people died, the head of the capital’s police commission, Degfie Bedi, said, raising the death count from 23. “The majority were beaten to death. Seven were killed by security forces,” he told journalists late on Monday.
The majority of people were arrested for perceived offences which are not recognised criminal offences under international law, such as smoking shisha or consuming khat.
Violence that raged from Sept. 12-17 and included attacks on minorities in Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo heartland outside Addis Ababa, was a blow to new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts at reconciliation.
AI’s Director for East Africa said in a statement: “While the Ethiopian authorities have in recent months made a commendable attempt to empty the country’s prisons of arbitrary detainees, they must not fill them up again by arbitrarily arresting and detaining more people without charge. The government must renew its commitment to a new era of respecting and upholding human rights.
“The majority of people were arrested for perceived offences which are not recognised criminal offences under international law, such as smoking shisha or consuming khat.
“They must be either charged with a recognizable criminal offence or released. Those arrested for taking part in protests on the recent ethnic clashes must all be released immediately and unconditionally,” Joan Nyanyuki stressed.
The unrest escalated on the day of a rally marking the return to Ethiopia of leaders of the exiled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had waged a four-decade insurgency for self-determination for Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
In the town of Burayu north of the capital, residents said shops were looted and people attacked by Oromo youths who stormed through streets targeting businesses and homes of ethnic minorities. Reuters could not confirm the accounts of who was responsible and the OLF did not comment.
“1,204 are in custody, but they are now being rehabilitated for a short period of time,” the police commission’s Degfie Bedi said. The arrested included people suspected of holding “illegal rallies”, burglaries and other crimes, he added.
Ethiopia’s Oromo, who make up about a third of the population, have long complained of being marginalised during decades of authoritarian rule by governments led by politicians from other smaller ethnic groups.
In recent years the Oromo have been angered by what they see as encroachment on their land. Abiy, himself the first Oromo leader in the ethnically diverse country’s modern history, has pursued a reconciliation strategy since taking power in April.
He has released hundreds of people detained over past political unrest and ended a two-decade military standoff with neighbouring Eritrea.