The authorities in Ethiopia must immediately reveal the whereabouts of dozens of politicians and journalists who were arrested alongside other people following widespread protests and violence on 29 June, Amnesty International said today.
The killing of Hachalu Hundesa, a popular outspoken Oromo singer, sparked protests, some of which degenerated into intercommunal violence, which together with a police crackdown left at least 177 dead and hundreds wounded.
In Addis Ababa and Oromia region, the police arrested at least 5,000 people, many of whom are in incommunicado detention with their whereabouts unknown. Those arrested include leading opposition politicians like Jawar Mohammed from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Eskinder Nega of Balderas for True Democracy party, leaders of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and journalists.
“The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to divulge their whereabouts. They must immediately disclose where each detainee is being held, and either charge them with a recognizable crime or release them immediately,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
Families are worried about their loved ones being held in crowded, unsanitary conditions in places of detention amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
OLF detainees’ whereabouts
Lawyers are unable to establish the whereabouts of key officials of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) including Michael Boran, Shigut Geleta, Lemi Benya, Kenessa Ayana, and Colonel Gemechu Ayana, who were arrested on various dates since Hachalu Hundesa’s death.
They told Amnesty International that the Addis Ababa Police Commission, the Federal Police Commission, the Oromia Police Commission and the Oromia Special Zone authorities have all denied having any of the OLF officials in their custody.
Another OLF leader, Abdi Regassa , arrested in February, remains unaccounted for, according to his lawyer, because the police have been moving him from one place of detention to another, such that neither his family nor his lawyers know his whereabouts.
Jawar Mohammed, founder of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) and chair of the OFC, was arrested on 30 June alongside his deputy Bekele Gerba. They were arraigned in court a second time yesterday and remanded in police custody for two more weeks as investigations continue. Bekele Gerba was arrested with his son, daughter and a nephew, who the courted ordered to be released.
Jawar and Bekele are being held on suspicions of “mishandling of a corpse” (of the late Hachalu Hundesa during a tussle about his burial location), “attempted murder on OPDO (now Prosperity Party) officials”, “initiating violence” and the “murder of a police official”.
“Pre-trial detention is only permissible when police have solid evidence to support accusations against those arrested. No one should be denied their rights to liberty while police go off on fishing expeditions to justify arrests,” said Deprose Muchena.
The two were initially held at Addis Ababa Police Commission premises, where they were last seen by their lawyers on 10 July, then found at an underground cell at an unofficial detention location near the Federal Police headquarters in Mexico Square on 14 July. Other OFC detainees were moved to a school in Addis Ababa.
OFC leaders like Dejene Tafa are yet to be presented in court or charged with any crime. His pregnant wife spends her days outside the courthouse just in case he is arraigned so that she may catch a glimpse of him.
“This morning (15 July), the police allowed me to look at him remotely after I begged them considering my pregnancy. The police do not allow me to give him food, allegedly for fear of COVID-19. Even now I am still waiting at the court should the police bring him here,” she said.
Eskinder Nega, a prominent journalist who is now the Chairman of the Balderas for True Democracy party, and his deputy Sintayehu Chekol were also arrested on 30 June in Addis Ababa. Eskinder was presented in court on 1 July on suspicions of organizing Addis Ababa youth for violence, and again on 16 July, when the police asked for more time to complete investigations.
Eskinder Nega complained to the court of having been beaten during arrest and detention. The court ordered investigations into the allegations, but according to his lawyer, the police have not done so. The court re-issued the orders yesterday.
Two journalists, one an editor of OMN, Melesse Diribsa together with a technician at the media house, Misha Chiri, and a Kenyan journalist, Yassin Juma, were arrested on 2 July and arraigned in court on 4 July. They are due back in court tomorrow but have been denied family and consular visits respectively.
Yesterday the police arrested Guyo Wario, the OMN journalist who interviewed Hachalu Hundesa about a week before his killing, and Nasir Adem, a photo and video editor at the same media house.
“Ethiopian authorities must resist the urge to return to the familiar path of repression. They must respect the right to protest and express political dissent,” said Deprose Muchena.
“They must also uphold due process and guarantee all detainees’ access to their families and lawyers, and fair trials that adhere to international human rights law and standards.”
The ethno-religious violence sparked by Halachu Hundesa’s killing and the deadly crackdown on protestors left at least 177 dead and hundreds wounded, according to Ethiopia’s Federal Police Commission. Property was also damaged in many parts of the country including Shashemene, Agarfa, Arusi Negele, Dera, Ziway.