1,000 arrested this month as protests in Ethiopia intensify

In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, Ethiopians chat slogans against the government during their march in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. (AP Photo)

At least 1,000 protesters were arrested this month in one Ethiopian town. Mayor Ararsa Merdesa of Sebeta said most are either still detained or under investigation. It is the latest evidence of increasing crackdowns on protests in the country.

The government announced a state of emergency on Oct. 8, days after police fired teargas at protesters, causing a stampede that killed at least 55 people.

Over the past year, beginning with protests in the Oromia region, more than 500 people have been killed and thousands have been arrested. Police intimidation has not subdued the protests. Clashes were frequent but small until the incident two weeks ago. Now the government is putting much more pressure on the protesters. The state of emergency places restrictions on social media use, bans two television channels, limits protests, bans protest gestures and implements curfews.

The rules extend beyond Ethiopians. On Sunday, the government announced that diplomats may not travel more than 25 miles outside the capital city Addis Ababa.

The powers given to security forces are a bigger concern. They now legally can stop and search anyone. And they do not need the court’s authorization to search homes.

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The situation is concerning to human rights advocates. The government is mostly composed of the minority Tigrayans. The current protest are predominantly by the Oromo and Amhara communities, which collectively make up about 60 percent of the population. The protests began as a response to a plan by the government to expand the city limits of Addis Ababa into Oromia, which would displace people from their homes.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Development and Subcommittee on Human Rights held a joint meeting to learn more about the situation last week. Representatives from various European countries expressed concerns about what is happening in Ethiopia.

“At this point, Ethiopia is in the midst of its worst political and human rights crisis since the government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power in 1991. Urgent action is needed before the crisis further deteriorates,” said Felix Horne, senior Ethiopia/Eritrea researcher for Human Rights Watch, at the hearing. “While Ethiopian people bravely demand their human rights, concerned intergovernmental bodies and governments should press the Ethiopian government to respect basic rights and hold accountable those who violate them.”

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For years the Ethiopian government has benefited from foreign aid despite repressing press freedom and opposition politicians. Impressive economic growth, improved health for women and children, and reduced poverty make the country a favored development success story. There were some hopes that President Barack Obama would lean on Ethiopia’s human rights record during his visit in 2015. He did end up condemning the crackdown on opponents. And gave a boost to the authoritarian government by calling it “democratically elected.”

A few months later the protests started and the Ethiopian government led by prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has intensified its effort to eliminate dissent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a nod of support to the protesters during her visit to the country last week. She said that “a vibrant civil society is part and parcel of a developing country” to the press and offered to provide police training on how to deal with demonstrations.

“Ethiopia is committed to have a multiparty democracy as per our constitution. And Ethiopia is committed to have human rights observed. … But Ethiopia is also against any violent extremist armed struggling groups,” said Desalegn in response.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.