Ethiopia human rights report questions allegations of ethnic violence since protests began

Protests that have paralyzed parts of Ethiopia since November have shown signs of potential ethnic violence as security forces detain groups considered allies of opposition leader and ethnic Oromo political leader Kemal Dessalegn, according to the country’s human rights commission.

In a report issued last week, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said it had received claims that security forces had detained hundreds of people from Somali and Amhara ethnicity, based on ethnicity, since November, when the protests began in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, and had been in the process of “cleansing” the region of opposition and banned groups.

The commission said it had received reports that military personnel had been keeping “foreigners” in military bases in many regions of the country and conducting targeted “opposition background checks.” However, it added that it could not ascertain whether anyone had been detained based on ethnicity.

The report comes as Oromo leaders continue to campaign for a permanent ceasefire with Ethiopia’s ruling party. Ethiopia’s state-run media cited the chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Abtay Kebede, in a recent report stating that the ruling EPRDF party had misled the country about the causes of the protests in a bid to justify military-led crackdowns on protesters. The commission has issued public statements critical of the military crackdowns, said Timothy E. Pritchard, a prominent law professor and expert on East Africa at Clemson University in South Carolina.

The unrest, which began after disputed elections in 2015, has left hundreds dead and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, with many settling in temporary camps near Ethiopia’s Bala Harassa national park. The government has since denied claims of military raids in the area, though it has stated that many of the graves of those killed were from civilians and not military casualties.

The government first said it was pursuing action against those behind the protests in response to a United Nations report in January that found there had been “very serious human rights violations” in Oromia, including the extrajudicial killing of at least 500 people, many of whom were civilians and government supporters.

The commission said it had conducted on-the-ground investigations in the region and had established that security forces had been detaining protesters. It said security forces had dispersed crowds in local communities by firing tear gas, water cannons and beating the crowd with batons.

Timothy also said the report conflicted with an Amnesty International report in May which said the government had killed only 30 people in Oromia. The human rights organization said it had “conducted 20 visits to the sites where anti-government protests have occurred and interviewed over 100 people.”

“The EPRDF government should be worried about the report from Human Rights Watch,” said Matt Gignac, a research analyst at the U.S.-based Institute for Security Studies. “It is a clear attempt by the EPRDF to downplay the scale of the humanitarian crisis and displacement occurring in the Oromia region by understating the complicity of local Oromo officials and military against the protesters.”

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