At least 1,000 people, mostly ethnic Tigrayans, have been detained in cities across Ethiopia since a state of emergency was declared two weeks ago, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
The state of emergency came into force on November 2, a year after a conflict erupted between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party controlling the northern region of Tigray.
The declaration, valid for six months, allows suspects to be detained without trial for as long as the state of emergency lasts and allows house-to-house searches without a warrant.
“At least 1,000 individuals are believed to have been detained over the past week or so – with some reports putting the figure much higher,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.
“These developments are all the more disturbing given that most of those detained are reported to be people of Tigrayan origin.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “his concern over reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, which serve to widen divisions and resentment between groups,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu did not respond to a Reuters news agency request for comment. Police have previously said the arrests were not ethnically motivated but aimed at detaining supporters of the TPLF.
Lawyers have said that thousands of Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained since the emergency was announced, including several people working for the UN.
UN Human Rights Office Spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters in Geneva that 10 local UN staff, as well as 34 drivers subcontracted by the organisation were still being held.
“We call for all those still in detention to be immediately released,” she said, adding that if that does not happen, “a court or other independent and impartial tribunal should review the reasons for their detention, or they should be formally charged”.
Throssell acknowledged that it was “challenging” for the remaining UN rights agency staff to do their work, adding that, “This is why we have reports of at least 1,000 people detained, but we’re not in a position to give a more definitive number.”
Detention conditions were generally reported to be “poor”, she added, with many of those detained held in overcrowded police stations and unaware of the reason for their detention.
Thousands have died and more than two million people have been forced from their homes by the conflict between the Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF over the past year. Hundreds of thousands are now living in famine-like conditions.
The TPLF, which used to dominate Ethiopian politics, accuses the federal government of centralising power. The government accuses the TPLF of trying to return to its previous dominance. Both are accused of violations that may amount to war crimes, the UN has said.