Thousands of members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, are being ruthlessly targeted by the state based solely on their perceived opposition to the government, said Amnesty International in a new report released today.
“Because I am Oromo” – Sweeping repression in the Oromia region of Ethiopia exposes how Oromos have been regularly subjected to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charge, enforced disappearance, repeated torture and unlawful state killings as part of the government’s incessant attempts to crush dissent.
“The Ethiopian government’s relentless crackdown on real or imagined dissent among the Oromo is sweeping in its scale and often shocking in its brutality,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher.
“This is apparently intended to warn, control or silence all signs of ‘political disobedience’ in the region.”
More than 200 testimonies gathered by Amnesty International reveal how the Ethiopian government’s general hostility to dissent has led to widespread human rights violations in Oromia, where the authorities anticipate a high level of opposition. Any signs of perceived dissent in the region are sought out and suppressed, frequently pre-emptively and often brutally.
At least 5,000 ethnic Oromos have been arrested between 2011 and 2014 based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government.
These include peaceful protesters, students, members of opposition political parties and people expressing their Oromo cultural heritage.
In addition to these groups, people from all walks of life – farmers, teachers, medical professionals, civil servants, singers, businesspeople, and countless others – are regularly arrested in Oromia based only on the suspicion that they don’t support the government. Many are accused of ‘inciting’ others against the government.
Family members of suspects have also been targeted by association – based only on the suspicion they shared or ‘inherited’ their relative’s views – or are arrested in place of their wanted relative.
Many of those arrested have been detained without charge for months or even years and subjected to repeated torture. Throughout the region, hundreds of people are detained in unofficial detention in military camps. Many are denied access to lawyers and family members.
Dozens of actual or suspected dissenters have been killed.
The majority of those targeted are accused of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) – the armed group in the region.
However, the allegation is frequently unproven as many detainees are never charged or tried. Often it is merely a pretext to silence critical voices and justify repression.
“People are arrested for the most tenuous of reasons: organizing a student cultural group, because their father had previously been suspected of supporting the OLF or because they delivered the baby of the wife of a suspected OLF member. Frequently, it’s because they refused to join the ruling party,” said Claire Beston.
In April and May 2014, events in Oromia received some international attention when security forces fired live ammunition during a series of protests and beat hundreds of peaceful protesters and bystanders. Dozens were killed and thousands were arrested.
“These incidents were far from being unprecedented in Oromia – they were merely the latest and bloodiest in a long pattern of suppression. However, much of the time, the situation in Oromia goes unreported,” said Claire Beston.
Amnesty International’s report documents regular use of torture against actual or suspected Oromo dissenters in police stations, prisons, military camps and in their own homes.
A teacher told how he had been stabbed in the eye with a bayonet during torture in detention because he refused to teach propaganda about the ruling party to his students.
A young girl said she had hot coals poured on her stomach while she was detained in a military camp because her father was suspected of supporting the OLF.
A student was tied in contorted positions and suspended from the wall by one wrist because a business plan he prepared for a university competition was deemed to be underpinned by political motivations.
Former detainees repeatedly told of methods of torture including beatings, electric shocks, mock execution, burning with heated metal or molten plastic and rape, including gang rape.
Although the majority of former detainees interviewed said they never went to court, many alleged they were tortured to extract a confession.
“We interviewed former detainees with missing fingers, ears and teeth, damaged eyes and scars on every part of their body due to beating, burning and stabbing – all of which they said were the result of torture,” said Claire Beston.
Detainees are subject to miserable conditions, including severe overcrowding, underground cells, being made to sleep on the ground and minimal food. Many are never permitted to leave their cells, except for interrogation and, in some cases, aside from once or twice a day to use the toilet. Some said their hands or legs were bound in chains for months at a time.
As Ethiopia heads towards general elections in 2015, it is likely that the government’s efforts to suppress dissent, including through the use of arbitrary arrest and detention and other violations, will continue unabated and may even increase.
“The Ethiopian government must end the shameful targeting of thousands of Oromos based only on their actual or suspected political opinion. It must cease its use of detention without charge, torture and ill-treatment, incommunicado detention, enforced disappearance and unlawful killings to muzzle actual or suspected dissent,” said Claire Beston.
Interviewees repeatedly told Amnesty International that there was no point trying to complain or seek justice in cases of enforced disappearance, torture, possible killings or other violations. Some were arrested when they did ask about a relative’s fate or whereabouts.
Amnesty International believes there is an urgent need for intervention by regional and international human rights bodies to conduct independent investigations into these allegations of human rights violations in Oromia.
This report is based on more than 240 testimonies collected by Amnesty International, including 176 face-to-face interviews with Oromo refugees collected between July 2013 and July 2014, in four main locations: Nairobi and Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya; Hargeisa, Somaliland; and Kampala, Uganda. Around 40 telephone and email exchanges were conducted with people in different locations in Oromia and in Addis Ababa between 2012 and 2014, and 30 further face-to-face interviews in Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya between 2011 and 2012. Since 2011, Amnesty International has not been permitted to access Ethiopia to conduct research.