Amnesty International is asking for the release of thousands of students it says have been arrested over the past two-and-a-half months in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region. Amnesty says most are not allowed to communicate with lawyers or family and may be at risk of torture.
The government says the protesters are members or violent supporters of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front.
Martin Hill is a researcher on the Horn of Africa for Amnesty International in London. He told Voice of America reporter William Eagle that the protestors had been demonstrating over a number of state and local issues. Among their demands was the release of political leaders. He says the protestors are not connected to demonstrations called by the opposition Coalition for Unity and Development (CUD) in response to alleged fraud in last May’s national elections.
“This is not connected to the CUD call. These are not CUD supporters. These are Oromo issues. And the demands of the demonstrators included the release of political detainees, [such as] the release of members of the community association called the Mechatulemma. It has been largely shut down. It had existed since the 1960’s but its leaders are not currently detained in Addis Ababa on charges of armed conspiracy. A court actually ordered their release, but it was sent back to another court on appeal and [the case] has not yet been heard. We have called their [detainees] prisoners of conscience who have not called for armed struggle, but were imprisoned for their …financial support for students dismissed in demonstrations last year.”
Hill says some of last November’s protests were held by secondary school students in the town of Ambo in western Oromiya State. He says many are being held in Ambo Palace Prison and at a nearby police training station called Sankele. He says Amnesty has not heard of anyone involved in the cases being taken to court within 48 hours and scheduled for trial, as required by the country’s legal system.
Government-linked newspapers like the Ethiopian Herald says residents in some parts of Western Oromiya State are asking for a crackdown on what the paper calls “anti-peace” forces that support the OLF. The paper says these groups carry automatic weapons and have robbed, raped and killed civilians.
Martin Hill of Amnesty International disagrees: “The OLF has been fighting in the Oromiya region and it is based in Eritrea, but very few military confrontations are believed to have taken place -- and certainly not in large parts of Western Oromiya where these demonstrations [occurred]. So there is no real evidence of OLF fighters being anywhere near or in connection with these demonstrations, (which) started off peacefully in most cases but ended up violently, with some students being shot dead and others wounded.”
Recently British Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had agreed to back an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations in the region. Hill says, “It could be the beginning. This is an official announcement and if such an independent and impartial inquiry is set up, the standards would have to be recognized – [for example] so that people can freely give evidence to [the commission], [which would be] run by independent and impartial personalities, and who will then issue a public report in a reasonable time with actionable recommendations.”