Ethiopia’s six-month crackdown on protests in its Oromia region left more than 400 people dead, thousands injured and saw tens of thousands arrested, according to Human Rights Watch.
Hundreds more are estimated to have disappeared while many of those killed were under 18, the US-based rights group said on Thursday after conducting more than 100 interviews and compiling data from several organisations.
The figures are far higher than the previous estimates for the 500 reported demonstrations that began in November over opposition to a government plan to extend the municipal boundaries of the capital Addis Ababa into Oromia. The protests, which lasted until May, escalated to wider grievances after the expansion plan was shelved as anger mounted over the alleged brutality of the authorities’ response, the rights group said.
“The vast majority of protesters interviewed described police and soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowds with little or no warning or use of non-lethal crowd-control measures, including water and rubber bullets,” said Human Rights Watch.
The Ethiopian government did not respond to repeated requests for reaction to the report.
Leslie Lefkow, the deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the intensity of the crackdown increased after the military was deployed in December. “The Ethiopian government sees even the most moderate dissent as a threat to stability,” she said. “So if there is any issue or concern they deploy a sledgehammer to a mosquito.”
The Ethiopian government sees even the most moderate dissent as a threat to stability. So if there is any issue or concern they deploy a sledgehammer to a mosquito
Human Rights Watch said there was violence at some protests but Ms Lefkow said this was often in retaliation against the security forces and that the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful.
The Oromo make up about 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s 90m people but they believe they are marginalised by the Tigrayan ethnic group, which dominates federal institutions despite comprising only about 6 per cent of the population.
Most of those detained have been released, but many have been charged with myriad offences. These include Bekele Gerba, one of 23 senior members of the Oromo Federalist Congress, a legally-registered political party, who was charged under the counterterrorism law after spending four months in detention.
Of Ethiopia’s 90m people are Oromo, but they feel marginalised
Among those detained were people protesting peacefully outside the US embassy in Addis Ababa. Former detainees reported being tortured while some women said they were raped, said Human Rights Watch.
Ms Lefkow said that the protests may have subsided recently because of the brutality but added that the “government response is probably sowing the seeds for future dissent”.
The Ethiopian government has severely restricted access to the internet and social media in the Oromia region, which straddles much of the centre and south of the country, making it hard to verify reports of protests.
Many journalists seeking to report the protests have been detained. Ethiopia was the sixth worst jailer of journalists last year, according to the Paris-based Committee to Protect Journalists.