Ethiopia: Multiple arrests in major crackdown on government critics

The Ethiopian government is tightening its suffocating grip on freedom of expression in a major crackdown which has seen the arrest of numerous independent, critical and opposition voices over the last two days, said Amnesty International.

Six members of an independent blogger and activist group and a freelance journalist were arrested yesterday 25 April. Another journalist was arrested this morning. Meanwhile 20 members of the political opposition Semayawi (Blue) party have been arrested since Thursday.

“These arrests appear to be yet another alarming round up of opposition or independent voices” said Claire Beston, Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International.

“This is part of a long trend of arrests and harassment of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and political opponents in Ethiopia.”

Six members of the independent blogger and activist group ‘Zone 9’ were arrested on 25 April in Addis Ababa. Group members Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kiberet, Natnael Feleke and Abel Wabela were arrested from their offices or in the street on Friday afternoon. All six were first taken to their homes, which were searched, and then taken to the infamous Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector ‘Maikelawi’, where political prisoners are held in pre-trial, and sometimes arbitrary, detention.

At around the same time on Friday afternoon freelance journalist Tesfalem Waldyes was also arrested. His home was also searched before he was taken to Maikelawi. Another freelance journalist and friend of the Zone 9 group, Edom Kasaye, was arrested on the morning of Saturday 26 April. She was accompanied by police to her home, which was searched, and then taken to Maikelawi.

“The detainees must be immediately released unless they are charged with a recognisable criminal offence” said Claire Beston.

“They must also be given immediate access to their families and lawyers.”

The detainees are being held incommunicado. Family members of those arrested reportedly went to Maikelawi on the morning of Saturday 26 April, and were told they could leave food for the detainees, but they were not permitted to see them.

The Zone 9 group had temporarily suspended their activities over the last six months after what they say was a significant increase in surveillance and harassment of their members. On 23 April the group announced via social media that they were returning to their blogging and activism. The arrests came two days later.

It is not known what prompted Waldyes’ arrest, but he is well known as a journalist writing independent commentary on political issues. 

In further arrests, the political opposition party, the Semayawi (Blue) Party, says that during 24 and 25 April more than 20 of its members were arrested. The party was arranging to hold a demonstration on Sunday 27 April. They had provided the requisite notification to Addis Ababa administration, and had reportedly received permission.

The arrested party members, which include the Vice Chairman of the party, are reported to be in detention in a number of police stations around the city, including Kazanchis 6th, Gulele and Yeka police stations.

The Chairman of the party, Yilkil Getnet, was also reportedly arrested, but was released late on Friday night.

Over the last year, the Semayawi party has staged several demonstrations, which have witnessed the arrests and temporary detention of organisers and demonstrators on a number of occasions.

In March, seven female members of the Semayawi Party were arrested during a run to mark International Women’s Day in Addis Ababa, after chanting slogans including “We need freedom! Free political prisoners! We need justice! Freedom! Don’t divide us!” The women were released without charge after ten days in detention. 

“With still a year to go before the general elections, the Ethiopian government is closing any remaining holes in its iron grip on freedom of speech, opinion and thought in the country” said Claire Beston.