Mass Arrests of thousands in Addis Ababa slammed by Amnesty International

Written by Zecharias Zelalem

(OPride)— International human rights advocacy group Amnesty International are the latest to condemn the Ethiopian government’s rounding up of 3000 people over the past ten days. In the aftermath of violence in and around Addis Ababa and the suburb of Burayu, police launched a crackdown it says was to collect the perpetrators and also curb the general unrest. Residents of the Ethiopian capital claim that most of the detainees weren’t criminals, and Amnesty International has echoed calls for their immediate releases.

“The majority of people were arrested for perceived offenses which are not recognized criminal offenses under international law, such as smoking shisha or consuming khat,” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty’s Director for the Horn of Africa region. “They must be either charged with a recognizable criminal offense or released. Those arrested for taking part in protests on the recent ethnic clashes must all be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Chaotic times

The arrests come on the heels of some of the worst violence to plague the capital city and its environs in recent history. Starting from September 14th, ethnically charged attacks in Burayu targeting the area’s ethnic Gamo, Gurage and other communities hailing from Southern Ethiopia left at least 23 people dead. Organized mobs beat innocent people to death, looted homes and at least one incident of rape was reported. Similarly, violence across Addis Ababa left 28 people dead, with a number of the victims targeted for their wearing Oromo attire or symbols of the Oromo Liberation Front. A large number of Oromos had converged on the capital city to attend the ceremonial welcome for a contingent of OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) fighters who returned home from Eritrea accepting a call to give up the armed struggle for the peaceful political one.

In the aftermath of this bout of horrific violence, mourning families of victims and outraged citizens called for the perpetrators to be arrested. However, it appears that a fair number of those picked up by police in the week or so following the chaos were selected largely for their affiliation to political opposition party Ginbot 7. Others arrests appear to have been random, with police reported to have dragged people out of shisha bars to police stations. Many have since been released.

Local media outlet Addis Standard spoke to one arrestee a day after his release. Fikremariam Abera, a mechanic says he was held for two days with 43 other inmates at a police compound near the Ghandi Hospital.

“I was heading home after a long day at work when I was picked up by a federal police pickup car which was carrying 12 others,” the visibly distressed Fikremariam told Addis Standard. “We were kept for the first night without explanations. The next day two police officers started to ask us questions on whether or not we participated in planning a second demonstration on Wednesday.”

Police reaction to backlash

Addis Ababa Police Commissioner Degife Bedi defended the action, saying that his forces have arrested a large number of criminals, including those involved in the recent spate of killings. Despite evidence to the contrary, he denied reports that police have been arresting people without court warrants. “We’ve taken action against those who have been involved in instigating chaos and unrest,” the Addis Ababa Police Commissioner told assembled press.

Addis Ababa Police Commissioner Degife Bedi denies police have carried out “mass arrests” in Addis Ababa (Image: Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation)

“As for the shisha lounges and bars, many of them were targeted for their owners operating without a licence, patrons organizing illegal gambling or allowing underage teenagers inside. Fraud, illicit activities and other activities linked to illegal drugs are linked to these locations,” Commissioner Degife Bedi said.

A step backwards?

But the move has been widely condemned by Addis Ababa’s residents, many of whom took to social media to express their frustrations. Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s appointment in April, the government has vacated the country’s prisons of thousands of incarcerated political prisoners. Social media users have called the recent arrests a step backwards.

“What is happening? Who ordered these arrests? What’s their crime? How many have been taken? Why is no one explaining??” renowned Ethiopian women’s rights activist and lawyer, Blen Sahilu posted on Twitter.

“I’m so frustrated with this random mass detention thing in Addis Ababa,” wrote Zone 9 blogger and outspoken rights activist Befeqadu Hailu. “They’re getting us back to that police state feeling. I was out until 10:00 and everyone in the taxi talks about it; my phone was off and my family had to check about me all over at my friends.”

Exactly when or even whether or not detainees suspected of serious offenses will be brought to trial isn’t clear.



About the author

Zecharias Zelalem

Zecharias Zelalem is a writer and journalist tackling sports and politics. He's also a contributor for Addis Standard and Ethiosports.

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