- As the 15 May parliamentary elections approach, Ethiopian authorities are accused of establishing "new institutions that suppress speech and political activity in the country's most populous region," Oromia. At the same time, officials have continued to detain and harass perceived political opponents all over the country, human rights activists claim.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch in a 44-page report released today is documenting how regional authorities and security forces have used exaggerated concerns about armed insurgency and "terrorism" to justify the torture, imprisonment and sustained harassment of their critics and even ordinary citizens in the central region of Oromia. The ethnic-based party that controls the region, the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organisation (OPDO), holds the largest share of parliamentary seats within the four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991.
The human Rights Watch said that election observers reporting on the 15 May parliamentary vote "must acknowledge the extent to which these pervasive abuses have been used to prevent the emergence of dissenting voices and to punish those who speak out critically against government policies."
- The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles, said Peter Takirambudde, of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "But in the run-up to the elections, the authorities have intensified the repression they have used to keep themselves in power for 13 years," he added.
In recent months, regional authorities in Oromia have imposed new local institutions that restrict the large rural population's most basic freedoms, according to the report. For more than a decade, the region's ruling OPDO has sought to solidify its grip on power by punishing dissenters and intimidating others into silence. So far, these abuses have been largely ignored by the international community.
The OPDO has enjoyed a position of unchallenged dominance in Oromia's governance since 1991, following the overthrow of the military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. The following year, the Oromo Democratic Peoples' Organisation's only rival for political control of Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front, withdrew from the political process after its candidates and supporters were harassed and intimidated in the run up to parliamentary elections.
Since then, the Oromo Liberation Front has waged an ineffectual armed struggle that has provided the authorities with a rationalisation for repression. Throughout this period, Oromo's ruling party has "routinely accused its critics and opponents of involvement with the rebel group to justify subjecting them to extreme abuse and harassment," the human rights group found.
In March, Human Rights Watch researchers had interviewed dozens of people in Oromia who said they had been arbitrarily detained, often repeatedly, when officials accused them of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front. In each of those cases, despite the inability of Ethiopian government authorities to produce any evidence to support their allegations, the detainees were held for weeks or months.
None of the former detainees interviewed had ever been tried for any offense connected to their arrest or confronted with any evidence that they had committed any crime. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which security officials had arrested children as young as 11 and accused them of plotting armed insurrection.
Many of the people detained on suspicion of involvement in the Oromo Liberation Front were severely beaten while in detention, and some were subjected to brutal methods of torture. Several people detained last year described being beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Others recounted how they were stripped naked and made to stand with partially full bottles of water tied to their testicles.
- They told me that I had gone to school not for education but to do politics, said a 19- year-old Oromo woman detained in August by police in Agaro. "They forced me to take off my clothes and I was naked except for my underwear when they started kicking me. They put a pistol in my mouth and said that they would kill me."
In the past six months, regional authorities have taken even greater efforts to stifle dissent in Oromia's countryside, where more than 85 percent of the population lives. Beginning late last year, Oromia's regional government began imposing an entirely new set of quasi-governmental community "development" organisations called gott and garee, in thousands of rural communities.
While government officials claim that these institutions exist to facilitate development work, they are actually being used "to monitor and control the speech, movement and personal associations of rural households in violation of fundamental rights," the report says. With elections approaching, these institutions had also used monetary sanctions to enforce attendance at pro-ruling party political rallies thinly disguised as "community meetings."
In response to repeated demonstrations by students protesting government policies, regional and local authorities have gone to great lengths to monitor and suppress criticism in Oromia's schools. Students said that they could not express themselves freely in the classroom for fear of being suspended, expelled or even imprisoned. Several teachers had confirmed that such fears were well-founded.
People who have suffered abuse at the hands of government officials because of their critical opinions said that they now avoid speaking in public about the issues facing their communities. The chilling effect of these abuses is most pronounced in Oromia's countryside, where dozens of farmers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the efforts of the garee to monitor their opinions have caused them to avoid any discussion that might be seen as political.
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