Ethiopia: Hundreds Killed by 'Excessive Force' in Oromo Protests, Says HRW

Oromo protesters in Malta.
Ethiopian migrants from the Oromo community protest against the Ethiopian regime in Valletta, Malta, December 21, 2015. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 people, including children, in the Oromia region by using excessive force to quell anti-government protests, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and many remain in detention without charge, HRW said in a report published on Thursday. The organization called for Ethiopia to investigate and prosecute those among its security forces responsible for abuses and demanded greater pressure be exerted by the international community on the Horn of Africa state.

The protests in Oromia began in November 2015 in response to the Ethiopian government's proposed Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan, which suggested an expansion of the Ethiopian capital that could result in farmers from the Oromo ethnic group being displaced and losing their land. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, constituting around a third of the population at the last census in 2007. Oromia is the largest state in Ethiopia and surrounds the capital Addis Ababa on all sides.

The Ethiopian government announced in January that it was dropping the expansion plan, but protests have continued in Oromia, in part motivated by the brutal crackdown up until that point. According to Felix Horne, Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher at HRW and the report's lead author, methods used by the security forces included firing live ammunition into crowds. "It's quite often indiscriminate, randomly spraying bullets into crowds," says Horne. "Children are often the ones at the front of the protests—they're more eager, [so] they're often the ones that were hit."

Abiy Berhane, minister counsellor for the Ethiopian Embassy in London, told Newsweek that HRW's report was inaccurate. "The allegations in the HRW report talking about 400 deaths are not acceptable. HRW always gives exaggerated figures because it does not have a physical presence in Ethiopia and relies on casualty numbers supplied by opposition groups," says Berhane. He cites a report compiled by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission that was submitted to parliament on June 10, which found that 173 people were killed—including 14 members of the security forces and 14 local government officials—and 261 were seriously injured, 110 of whom were from the security forces.

The HRW report was based on more than 125 interviews with protesters, witnesses and government officials, and documented around 60 of the 500 reported demonstrations. The Ethiopian government has previously accused the Oromo protesters of being armed and inciting violence . Horne says that HRW did document instances of violence by protesters—including the targeting of government buildings and private farmland—but that, in the majority of instances, the use of violence by police was unwarranted. "These are not tens of thousands of protesters that are overwhelming security forces. These are hundreds at most, so there's no excuse for the level of force that the security forces used," says Horne.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn—who previously accused neighboring Eritrea of manipulating the protests to incite civil disobedience—issued an apology for the deaths of protesters in March but accused "anti-peace forces" of being responsible for the violence. But according to Etana Habte, an Ethiopian author and PhD candidate at SOAS University of London, the apology has proved hollow as the security forces have not faced punishment for their actions. "If he apologized for what happened in Oromia, [where] over 500 people have been killed, no one was brought to justice in relation to this," says Habte, citing a higher death toll. "No one was released from prison, among the killers no one was brought to justice. The government did nothing practical, it simply said 'we are sorry.'"

Oromos have suffered a difficult history in Ethiopia. The Oromo language was not taught in schools for much of the 20th century, and activists from the ethnic group have often clashed with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has ruled the country since 1991. A 2014 report by Amnesty International found that at least 5,000 Oromos were arrested between 2011 and 2014 on the basis of alleged opposition to the government.

According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission's report, the violence was prompted by poor governance in Oromia and failure to address public grievances. The Commission's report said that legitimate demonstrations were hijacked by armed groups including the Oromo Liberation Front—a group established to campaign for Oromo self-determination but designated a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government—which used women and children as human shields by placing them at the front of crowds during demonstrations.

Berhane says that the Ethiopian government has begun dealing with the aftermath of the violence by arresting those alleged to be involved in corruption and running public consultations. "In short, the government is listening to the people and addressing their grievances," says Berhane.

Coverage of the protests has been limited in Ethiopia, which is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. Several journalists covering the protests were reportedly detained in March, though a representative of the Ethiopian government said the detentions were because the reporters had violated the terms of their accreditation.