Ethiopian police have unearthed a mass grave with an estimated 200 bodies in an area between the country’s Oromia and Somali regions, according to state-affiliated media.
Fana Broadcasting Corporation said on Thursday the grave was found during an investigation into atrocities allegedly carried out by a paramilitary force known as the “Liyu Police” that were seen as loyal to Abdi Mohammed Omer, the former president of the Somali region.
Adbi was forced to resign on August 6 and was later arrested after fighting broke out in the provincial capital, Jigjiga, and surrounding towns. He is now in detention facing trial for alleged human rights violations.
According to Fana, police were granted 14 days to unearth and do forensic examinations on the bodies.
“If these mass graves are proved to be related to a systematic attack to the local populations, certainly, we are looking at a case of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Awol Allo, a lecturer at Keele University’s School of Law and an expert on Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera.
“The man in the centre of this theatre cannot really wash his hands.”
The eastern region has been plagued by violence for decades as the government fought the secessionist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) before both sides signed a peace deal last month.
Human rights groups have often accused Abdi’s former administration of human rights abuses.
In July, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged that Abdi was running a secret jail where suspected ONLF members were tortured.
In a letter to the commissioner of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, HRW said it had documented cases of abuse, rape and humiliation in Jigjiga central prison that directly involved the Liyu Police.
Awol said the unofficial militia “were directly accountable and loyal to him (Abdi) long before he became president – after he became president, he had absolute control.”
In August, Ethiopian officials said the Liyu Police carried out an attack that killed 41 people and wounded 20 others.
When ethnic Somalis and Oromos clashed in border areas over claims to land and resources in the previous months, several hundred others were also reportedly killed.
Since taking power in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has overseen a number of reforms and pursued a reconciliation strategy, steering the state away from a hardline security policy in place for decades.
But Abiy’s moves have yet to halt ethnically motivated violence, seen as the new prime minister’s biggest domestic challenge.
Awol noted, however, that the appointment of Mustafa Omer, a human rights campaigner who lived in exile, as acting president of the Somali region was a step in the right direction.
“At the centre, the federal government is taking some radical steps in terms of transforming the political landscape, but it is important that accountability for victims of human rights is also part of this transformation.”