Massive Civilian Detentions Foster “Climate of Fear” in Ethiopia


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NAIROBI, Kenya – The family were awakened by a loud bang in the middle of the night at the gate of their home on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Police officers broke in without a warrant, ransacking the living room and peering under the beds. They arrested three family members, including a 76-year-old leg amputee torn from the bed while his sons begged to go in his place.

“They showed him no mercy even after he shouted, ‘I am disabled and diabetic,'” said the man’s nephew Kirubel, who only gave his first name for fear of reprisals.

The family are among hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Tigrayans who have been arrested and detained in the capital and beyond in recent weeks.

For the past year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has waged a macabre war against Tigrayan rebels in the country’s northernmost region. The Tigrayans dominated the Ethiopian government and military for decades until Mr. Abiy took power in 2018 and ousted their rulers. But since the start of the war, the Tigrayans have routed the Ethiopian army in Tigray, swept south, recently captured two strategic towns and threatened to advance towards the capital.

On November 2, the government declared a state of emergency and the resulting roundups swept away anyone of Tigrayan descent, many of whom had no connection or even affinity with the rebels. These were not only young men and women, but also mothers with children and the elderly, according to human rights activists and interviews with nearly a dozen family members and friends of the detainees. .

They were arrested on the streets, in their homes and even in workplaces – including banks, schools and shopping malls – and taken to overcrowded cells in police stations and detention centers.

Tigrayans have been targeted by police based on a mix of clues: their last names, details on ID cards and driver’s licenses, even the way they speak. Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.

The campaign of arrests, which also targeted members of certain other ethnic groups, swept through people in cities across the country, according to reports from police, rights groups and opposition parties. At least 10 United Nations staff and 34 contract drivers were also seized.

“The state of emergency in Ethiopia threatens to worsen an already very serious humanitarian and human rights situation in the country,” the top UN human rights official Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday. intermediary of a spokesperson. “Its provisions are extremely broad, with vague prohibitions going so far as to encompass ‘indirect moral’ support for what the government has termed ‘terrorist groups’.

The ethnically motivated detentions come amid a significant increase in hate speech online, which only fuels the civil war tearing Africa’s second most populous nation apart. Reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual assault by all parties to the conflict have undermined the vision of Ethiopian unity that Prime Minister Abiy and Nobel Peace Prize laureate promised when ‘he came to power over three years ago.

The war between the Ethiopian federal forces and their allies and the Tigrayan rebel fighters has left thousands dead, at least 400,000 living in conditions bordering on famine and displaced millions. It risks engulfing all of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa at large.

Mr Abiy’s resolve to continue the war appears to have only been bolstered by economic threats from the Biden administration, which has imposed sanctions on its military allies in neighboring Eritrea and suspended Ethiopia from access. duty free to the US market.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is visiting Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal this week, has expressed concern that Ethiopia could “implode”.

As the rebels pushed within 200 miles of the capital earlier this month, Abiy vowed to defend the capital “with our blood” even as African and Western envoys sought to negotiate a ceasefire.

Police officials defended the arrests, saying they were seizing supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, the country’s former dominant party, which Ethiopia now classifies as a terrorist organization.

Activists, however, say the state of emergency provisions are so nebulous that they give security officials unlimited leeway. The provisions allow anyone’s home to be searched or arrested without a warrant “on reasonable suspicion” that they are cooperating with terrorist groups.

Laetitia Bader, director of Human Rights Watch for the Horn of Africa, said that “the state of emergency legitimizes and legalizes illegal practices” and creates “a real climate of fear”.

Many Tigrayans now say they fear leaving their homes. Almost all of those who agreed to be interviewed refused to be identified by name for fear of arrest or reprisal.

Some Tigrayans inside and outside Addis Ababa said they were staying with non-Tigrayan friends to escape arrest. Others said they had stopped speaking the Tigrigna language in public spaces and removed any music or material from their cellphones that could identify their ethnicity.

If a phone call to a loved one doesn’t go through, they fear the worst.

“I’m even afraid to call,” said a Tigrayan in Nairobi, having learned that five relatives and friends had been seized. “It’s always bad news.”

While the arrests affected other ethnicities and spread to other parts of the country, most targeted Tigrayans.

In Addis Ababa, security agents demanded that landlords identify Tigrayan tenants. At a secondary school, a teacher said four Tigrayan teachers were arrested while having lunch after officers arrived with an intelligence letter containing their names.

A 38-year-old Addis Ababa trader was arrested by security officers after he opened his cellphone accessories store. A nearby store owner phoned the wife of the seized merchant, who said she left their two children with a neighbor and rushed to the store – only to find it closed and her husband gone.

After a three-day search, the wife said, she found her husband in an overcrowded detention center in Addis Ababa, without adequate bedding and food.

In Addis Ababa, rights groups say, police stations are so full of detainees that authorities have moved the overflow to heavily guarded makeshift facilities, including youth recreation centers, warehouses and a large prison. Without access to lawyers, some relatives of detainees say they will not approach these facilities, fearing that they too will be arrested.

According to three testimonies, many detainees are kept in packed concrete cells, no toilets, no food and abusive sentries who call them terrorists. Some inmates use plastic bottles to urinate. Those lucky enough to receive food from family and friends share it.

Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea, called the conditions “appalling” and said they risked sending the country “to the brink of a human rights catastrophe. “.

The raids have intensified as activists warn of an increase in social media posts inciting violence against Tigrayans.

Journalists, politicians and government-allied activists have all taken to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to label Tigrayans “traitors”, urge authorities to place them in “concentration camps” and encourage neighbors to “weed” them. Commentators on some articles listed neighborhoods where Tigrayans lived in the capital and urged authorities to remove them.

Digital activists, including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, have long accused Facebook of failing to moderate hate speech. Faced with mounting pressure, Facebook deleted a message from Mr. Abiy this month urging citizens to “bury” the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray.

Twitter too deactivated its Trends in Ethiopia section, citing “the risks of coordination that could incite violence or cause damage”.

Timnit Gebru, an American computer scientist of Ethiopian origin who spotted and reported some of the posts on Facebook, said the measurements were insufficient and amounted to “a game of Whack-a-mole”.

For now, many Tigrayans fear it will be only a matter of time before they are seized. A businessman, who paid a bribe of $ 400 for his release, said police told him they would come back for him.

It’s a spell Kirubel said he worried about as his disabled uncle and cousins ​​remained in detention.

“My children are worried that I will not come back when I leave the house,” he said. “Everyone is afraid. “

New York Times employees contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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