Twenty-five-year-old Shukri Shafe Guled comes from the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia, but has been living in Australia since 2010. In June 2016, he and other protesters gathered in Melbourne to demonstrate against the visit of an Ethiopian delegation that included the Somali Regional State president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Iley, who is accused of human rights abuses back home.
Guled explains pro-government supporters took his photograph and told him that “within 15 minutes,” they would “punish” his relatives living in Ethiopia. He says his three brothers were detained that day, and have not been heard from since.
Guled says his sister and his elderly mother were detained for about a month.
Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa senior researcher Felix Horne says the Ethiopian government arrested and detained dozens of relatives of the people who protested that day in Australia and is still holding many of them four months later.
It's a practice that's been occurring in the Somali Regional State for a number of years, he says.
“So this is something that’s been happening a lot, where there’s this collective punishment, of the whole society, those individuals who do not support the government and are not connected to the ONLF [Ogaden National Liberation Front] in any way are being targeted and we’re now seeing that happening in Australia and other places as well,” said Horne. “It’s a major problem.”
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“I think, how would someone feel, that an over 70-year-old woman, just living in her country, in her home, and someone comes to take her away for an action she has no control [over] at all. And she doesn’t even know what is going on, with the protests and these protests had been happening in tens of thousands of kilometers beyond the oceans,” Guled said.
Pro-government supporters told protesters in Melbourne they should make a video pledging support for Abdi and the government in order to secure the release of their relatives. Guled has refused, saying he prefers to use his voice to help others.
“I believe that if I get the courage to come out and speak about it, then many people will follow me. In that way, I can save so many people,” said Guled.
The Ethiopia government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Horne says HRW previously documented human rights abuses by the Ethiopian army when Abdi was the head of security in the Somali Regional State, and says Australia needs to improve its vetting procedures. The Australian government responded that Abdi’s visa application did not raise an alert.