Ethiopian security forces accused of grave human rights abuses

New Amnesty report documents extrajudicial executions, mass detentions during security operations in Amhara and Oromia.

Ethiopia''s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a signing ceremony with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has won international praise for initiating broad domestic reforms [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

A rights group has accused Ethiopian security forces of continuing to commit grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions and torture, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.

In its report on Friday, Amnesty International documented the arbitrary detentions of thousands of people and the forcible evictions of dozens of families from their homes, some of which were set alight, during security operations in response to attacks by armed groups and inter-communal violence in parts of the Amhara and Oromia regions.

The report covers the period between December 2018 and December 2019.

Abiy has introduced a series of sweeping reforms, including granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners and repealing draconian laws, since coming to power in April 2018. The initiation of broad domestic changes – along with efforts to end hostilities with neighbouring Eritrea, a longtime foe – has won Abiy international praise and secured him the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

But Abiy’s tenure has also been plagued by ethnic conflict, with hundreds of thousands of people being internally displaced amid a worsening security situation.

“The violations depicted in the report are telling of unfinished business of reform in Ethiopia including impunity for past human rights violations,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s regional director for Southern Africa and East Africa, told Al Jazeera.

The Ethiopian government did not immediately respond to Amnesty’s report. Al Jazeera contacted the Ethiopian Attorney General and Ministry of Peace for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication. Amnesty also said government offices did not respond to its report.

Mass arrests, killings

Under Abiy’s reformist drive, the government in 2018 lifted a ban on several political parties, some of which had been designated “terrorist” groups. The move paved the way for the leaders of the banned groups to return to the ethnically diverse country, and allowed the opposition parties to participate in long-awaited elections initially scheduled for August 2020 but now postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Amnesty said the opening up of the political space has coincided with politicians stirring up ethnic and religious animosities in their efforts to mobilise support, sparking inter-communal violence and armed attacks in several of the country’s regional states.

In response, the federal government set up security command posts to coordinate the operations of the military, police and local militia.

Amnesty’s report (PDF) documents a series of alleged abuses in Oromia, where security forces are waging a campaign against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The group is the breakaway armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party that pursued military struggle before its return to Ethiopia to pursue a peaceful agenda in 2018. 

Amnesty said it had collected evidence that at least 10,000 people suspected of supporting or working for the OLA were detained by security forces in rounds of mass detention that began in January 2019. 

It also said it had found evidence that at least 39 people were extrajudicially executed amid rising tensions in Oromia’s East Guji and West Guji zones. Other documented abuses included multiple cases of torture by security forces, with various people interviewed by Amnesty speaking of severe beatings by the security forces. In one case, a woman suffered a miscarriage shortly after she was beaten.

In Amhara, Amnesty said “at least 130 people were killed in inter-communal conflict in which the security forces were complicit”, either through active involvement or failure to protect the affected communities.

The group said regional police, militia and local vigilante groups carried out multiple attacks targeting ethnic Qemant, who seek greater autonomy, resulting in scores of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of people. “From 10-11 January 2019, the security forces and vigilante groups attacked a [Qemant] settlement in Metema with grenades and guns and set homes on fire. Fifty-eight people were killed within 24 hours as soldiers in a nearby camp failed to respond to cries for help,” Amnesty said.

The deputy head of the Amhara Regional Peace and Security Bureau told the rights group the casualties could have been greater if the security forces had not been deployed and also rejected the complicity claim.

‘Power struggle’

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said that while it is “very difficult” for countries to “effectively” police environments hit by inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflicts, as well as those experiencing independentist armed groups or movements, arbitrary killings “are feeding the cycle of violence”.

“In my experience, national or local authorities rely on heavy-handed and violent security tactics in place of political engagement towards long-term reform to address historical grievances,” Callamard told Al Jazeera.

In the case of Oromia, analysts believe the violence is largely attributed to the return of exiled opposition political parties following the opening up of the political space two years ago.

“When Abiy took power he criticised the authoritarian practices of the preceding government. But he has not been able to completely change the character of the regime just by making changes at the centre,” William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. 

He said the abuses are, to a large degree, a continuation of the violations seen under the previous governments.

“The expectation was that when the OLF returned to Ethiopia it would put down its weapons. Instead, a power struggle soon erupted between the OLF and the government, which led to continuing violence,” he said.

According to Davison, there is “no immediate prospect of a peaceful resolution” to the situation in western Oromia as the government seems intent on eradicating the OLA. The fact that there have not yet been free and fair elections, as promised, and that polls have now been delayed beyond the government’s term, complicates the situation, he added.

‘Complex security context’

Daniel Bekele, the chief commissioner of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, told Al Jazeera that: “Amnesty’s findings and ongoing reports of killings and arrests, particularly in the Oromia region should be taken very seriously.”

He added, however, that “we should not lose sight of the complex security context in which armed groups are destabilising the area and the fight within these groups is taking a heavy toll on civilians”.

In its report, Amnesty acknowledged that the government has taken “initial first steps … towards improving the human rights environment in the country” but warned that “a persistence of old-style patterns of violence perpetrated by the security forces threatens to derail sustained long-term gain”.

Fisseha Tekle, the right’s group Ethiopia researcher, said there have been “many positive developments after the coming into power of Abiy, but at the same time the reported violations do not reflect well on the government”.  

Looking ahead, Amnesty said it was concerned the rights violations and abuses will escalate during the upcoming general election period.

It recommended that the Ethiopian government take measures to immediately order security forces to stop carrying out extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, forced evictions and destruction of property belonging to people suspected of supporting opposition political parties or armed groups.

Amnesty further called for an end to the culture of impunity in security forces by demobilising the units that were complicit in the violence and human rights violations.

Source: Al Jazeera