Mass Detentions of Civilians Fan ‘Climate of Fear’ in Ethiopia

NAIROBI, Kenya – A family was woken from sleep 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 into the place without a warrant and ransacked the living room and looked under the beds. They arrested three family members, including a 76-year-old man, an amputee who had been pulled from a bed while his sons were begging to go in his place.

“They showed him no mercy even after he cried, I am handicapped and diabetic,” said the man’s nephew, Keropil, who only gave his first name for fear of reprisal.

The family is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of Ethiopians belonging to the Tigrayan ethnic group who have been arrested and detained in and outside the capital in recent weeks.

Over the past year, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has waged a horrific war against the Tigrayan rebels in the far north of the country. The Tigrayans controlled the Ethiopian government and military for decades until Mr Abiy took power in 2018 and marginalized their leaders. But since the start of the war, Tigray defeated the Ethiopian army at Tigray, swept south, recently capturing two strategic towns and threatening to advance towards the capital.

On November 2, the government declared a state of emergency, and the resulting arrests swept away any Tigrayans, many of whom had no links or even connection with the rebels. They were not only young men and women, but also mothers with children and the elderly, according to human rights defenders and interviews with nearly a dozen family and friends of detainees.

They have been taken off the streets, in their homes and even workplaces – including banks, schools and shopping centers – and taken to overcrowded cells in police stations and detention centres.

Tigrayans have been targeted by police based on a combination of allusions: their surnames, details listed on ID cards and driver’s licenses, even the way they speak Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.

The arrests campaign, which also targeted members of some other ethnic groups, discovered people in cities across the country, according to information provided by the police, rights groups and opposition parties. At least 10 UN staff and 34 subcontracted drivers were also seized.

“The state of emergency in force in Ethiopia risks exacerbating the already very serious humanitarian situation in the country,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s top human rights official, said on Tuesday through a spokeswoman. Its provisions are very broad, with vague bans going so far as to include ‘indirect moral’ support for what the government has described as ‘terrorist groups’.

The racially motivated arrests come amid a spike in hate speech online, which is only adding fuel to the civil war that has torn apart Africa’s second most populous country. Reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual abuse by all parties to the conflict have undermined the vision of Ethiopian unity that Mr Abiy, Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, promised when he took power more than three years ago.

The war between Ethiopian federal forces and their allies and Tigrayan rebel fighters has killed thousands of people, and at least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions and millions have been displaced. It threatens to swallow up all of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

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

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken, who is traveling to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal this week, expressed concern that Ethiopia could “explode from within”.

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

Police officials have defended the arrests, saying they are arresting supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the country’s former dominant party, which Ethiopia now designates as a terrorist organization.

However, activists say the state of emergency provisions are so vague that they give security officials unrestricted discretion. The provisions allow for a person’s home to be searched or detained without a warrant “on reasonable suspicion” that they are collaborating with terrorist groups.

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

Many Tigrayans say they are now afraid to leave their homes. Almost all of those who agreed to be interviewed declined to be named for fear of being arrested or facing reprisals.

Some Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and beyond said they are staying with non-Tigrian friends to avoid arrest. Others said they had stopped speaking Tigrinya in public and had deleted any music or documents on their mobile phones that could identify their ethnicity.

If a phone call to a relative is not made, they fear the worst.

“I’m afraid to call,” a Tigrayan resident in Nairobi said after learning that five relatives and friends had been kidnapped. “It’s always bad news.”

While the arrests involved other ethnicities and spread to other parts of the country, most of them targeted Tigray residents.

In Addis Ababa, security officers demanded that property owners identify Tigrayan tenants. In one secondary school, a teacher said that four Tigrayan teachers were detained while they were eating lunch after officers arrived with a letter from the intelligence containing their names.

Security officers have arrested a 38-year-old merchant in Addis Ababa, after he opened his own mobile phone accessory store. A nearby store owner called the news to the wife of the detained merchant, who said she left her two children with a neighbor and ran to the store – only to find it closed and her husband gone.

The wife said she found her husband in a crowded detention center in Addis Ababa, after a three-day search, without proper bedding or food.

In Addis Ababa, rights groups say police stations are so full of detainees that authorities have moved the surplus to heavily guarded temporary facilities, including youth entertainment centers, warehouses and one main prison. With no access to lawyers, some relatives of detainees say they will not go near these facilities, fearing that they may also be arrested.

According to three accounts, many detainees are held in overcrowded concrete cells, with no bathrooms, no food, and no abusive guards who describe them as terrorists. Some detainees use plastic bottles to urinate. Those lucky enough to receive food from family and friends share it.

Fisih Tekle, Amnesty International’s researcher in Ethiopia and Eritrea, described conditions as “appalling” and said they risked pushing the country to “the brink of a human rights catastrophe”.

The arrests intensified as activists warned of a rise in the number of social media posts inciting violence against ethnic Tigrayans.

Journalists, political figures and activists allied with the government have taken to platforms including Facebook and Twitter to label ethnic Tigrayans “traitors”, urging authorities to put them in “concentration camps” and encouraging neighbors to “uproot them”. Commentators on some of the posts mentioned the neighborhoods in which Tigray lives in the capital and urged the authorities to remove them.

Digital activists, including Facebook whistleblower Frances Hogan, have long accused Facebook of failing to correct hateful incitement rhetoric. As pressure mounted, Facebook this month deleted a post by Mr. Abiy urging citizens to “bury” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Twitter too Disable the directions section in Ethiopia“Coordination risks that may incite violence or cause harm.”

Timnit Gebru, an American computer scientist born in Ethiopia Spotted and reported Some Facebook posts said the measures are insufficient and amount to a “hit the mole game”.

Currently, many Tigrayans worry that it is only a matter of time before they are taken over. One businessman, who paid a $400 bribe for his release, said officers told him they would come for him again.

It’s a fate that Kerobel said he was worried about because his disabled uncle and cousins ​​are still being held captive.

“My kids are worried that I won’t come back when I leave the house,” he said. “Everyone is afraid.”

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

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