OPride Staff Reporter
At least four people were killed and about eight others wounded after Ethiopian security forces fired shots at Muslim activists on Friday in the Asasa town of Oromia.
The situation degenerated into violence following weeks of stalemate between Ethiopian authorities and activists who have been calling on the government to stop interfering in the affairs of religious institutions.
According to local sources, the skirmishes began right after Friday prayers. Uniformed security forces tried to detain Sheik Su’udi Aman, who had just given a sermon critical of the policies of the regime. When asked to follow them to the precinct station, the Sheik demanded that the police produce a warrant for his arrest. The police then began to beat him, eyewitnesses said.
A handful of worshipers and the sheik’s daughter tried to reason with the police. When the police “pushed and shoved the Sheik,” the locals, including elders, tried to free him. The police then started firing at the crowd, according to OPride sources. One of the dead is identified as Kamal Haruna.
The report could not be independently confirmed. Press freedom in Ethiopia is curtailed, making the country one of the most notorious enemies of free press. An amateur video taken by phone was posted on the web. However, due to its poor quality, only the sound of gunshots and the wailing and hysteria of women caught in the commotion is audible.
Tension between government agents and activists had been building for weeks. The flash point is the Ethiopian government’s attempt to import a sympathetic sect called the Al-Ahbash from Lebanon in an effort to curb what it calls an increasing radicalization of the Muslim community. Muslim activists deny these allegations and charge the government with gross intimidation and harassment aimed at stamping out the growing opposition to its undemocratic rule.
The Asasa town, located about 220 kms southeast of Addis Ababa, remains under a total lock-down after the incident. Movement to and from the area is restricted. Police had cordoned off the surroundings. Relatives who called to inquire about the safety of their loved ones faced dead phone lines and service interruptions. Those who had been contacted by OPride declined a request for an interview fearing government reprisals. Close 200 residents of Asasa town have been arrested by a rapid reaction contingent of the federal police deployed from Asalla and Shashamanne. According to local sources, the detained include: Sheik Su’udi, Kassim Gurracha, and Shamsuddin Adam.
There is a history of bad blood between the residents of the town and the authorities dating back to 1992 when the townsfolk rose in revolt against the regime. One source described the Asasa town as “the Ambo of the Southeast.”
Meanwhile, in Addis Ababa, the capital, thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest against the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (Majlis’) campaign of indoctrination. The current standoff is said to be the longest and most sustained the regime faces in twenty years. Analysts fear a renewed disturbance and further violence while they disagree on the width and breadth of the crackdown and possible protests against government action.
The Ethiopian government, headed by Prime Minister Zenawi, in power for more than two decades, is accused of outlawing dissent and being authoritarian by human rights organizations. Last week, Zenawi gave an uncharacteristically incoherent speech in parliament threatening severe action against his opponents, whom he called “enemies of the state.” The ruling party controls all but one seat out of a total of 547.
Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest region straddling from East to the Western edge, from the Southern tip to the North. It is also a place known not only for its religious diversity but also tolerance.
For more background and analysis, see Jawar Mohammed’s blog in Afaan Oromoo, Roorroo Wayyaaneen ummata Islaamaatirratti godhaa jirtuuf hirmaannaa Qabsoo Oromootirraa eeggamtu.