Thousands of people have been detained in Ethiopia’s capital and elsewhere since the government earlier this month declared a state of emergency over the country’s intensifying war, according to the state-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which said authorities are not doing enough to justify the reasons for detentions.
The human rights group’s estimate is the largest yet of the detentions that have occurred since November 2 as teams of volunteers roam the streets in Addis Ababa looking for ethnic Tigrayans suspected of supporting forces from the northern Tigray region. Ethnic Tigrayan forces have been fighting Ethiopia’s military for more than a year.
The commission on Wednesday expressed “grave concern” that it was unable to gather complete data on detainees. It said at least 714 people had been detained in one Addis Ababa sub-city alone, while another monitoring team found that up to 300 people had been detained in the eastern city of Dire Dawa.
“Large numbers of the detainees were of Tigrayan background,” the EHRC’s statement said, noting that the elderly and nursing mothers were among those held.
At detention centres the commission’s monitoring teams were able to visit, some were overcrowded and had no toilets, and many had no access to healthcare, it added.
Ethiopia’s government has said it is detaining people suspected of supporting the Tigray forces, but witnesses, lawyers and human rights groups have expressed concern that the state of emergency’s sweeping powers were being used to pick up people based on ethnicity alone.
“Propaganda is part of their war,” one of the community policing volunteers in Addis Ababa, Leul Hassen, told The Associated Press news agency earlier this week, referring to Tigrayans suspected of supporting the rival forces, as the volunteers checked people’s identity documents. “We have no time for that.”
On Tuesday, the United Nations’ human rights agency voiced alarm about the surging arrests which have ensnared dozens of UN staff and contracted drivers.
Spokeswoman Liz Throssell described the state of emergency’s provisions as “extremely broad, with vague prohibitions going as far as encompassing ‘indirect moral’ support for what the government has labelled ‘terrorist groups’.”
“We need to see people detained released,” United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday during a visit to neighbouring Kenya amid diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire, talks and humanitarian access.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
Though he promised a swift victory, by late June the Tigrayan forces had retaken most of Tigray, including its capital, Mekelle, and have since advanced into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
The war has killed thousands and pushed hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine-like conditions, according to the UN.
Abiy’s government accuses the international community of overlooking human rights abuses perpetrated by the TPLF in recent months.
On Wednesday, the government said that “millions of people need humanitarian assistance” in Amhara and Afar.