Ethiopia: Exercise Restraint at Upcoming Festival (HRW)

Ethiopia: Exercise Restraint at Upcoming Festival

International Inquiry Needed into Deaths at 2016 Event

Overview map of Bishoftu town and the Irreecha festival site.

Some people suffocated after falling into a nearby trench, while others were trampled in the ensuing chaos. Others fled toward nearby Lake Hora and drowned. Armed security forces were at the exits from the festival site, leaving those seeking to escape with few options. Numerous witnesses reported seeing dead bodies with bullet wounds in the stampede’s immediate aftermath. Two witnesses reported seeing plain clothes officers with pistols shooting at people during the stampede.

There were numerous protests around Bishoftu in the hours after the event. Witnesses said that people were killed with gunfire during these protests. In the week that followed, many people who attended Irreecha were arrested back in their home communities. Anger at the Irreecha deaths triggered unrest across Oromia as mobs of youths destroyed or looted government buildings and private businesses. On October 9, the government announced a far-reaching state of emergency that codified vague and overly broad restrictions on basic rights. The state of emergency was only lifted in August 2017.

A close-up map of the Irreecha festival site.

26-year old Gemechu told Human Right Watch, “The 2016 Irreecha was different from what we know. We were already angry with the government from a year of protests, and when they tried to control our sacred event the crowd grew very angry – but we were still peaceful. The same soldiers who had been killing us during the year of protests fired teargas and bullets at Irreecha, triggering the stampede. It is their fault all those people died.”

No credible and independent investigation of the 2016 deaths has been carried out. The government has expressed condolences for the deaths but have stated that security forces were not armed, despite photographic and video evidence to the contrary. The prime minister congratulated security forces for their efforts to “maintain peace and order.” Government officials also have stated repeatedly that the situation was exacerbated by “anti-peace” elements in the crowd.

The government routinely blocks independent investigators, and does not cooperate with international mechanisms. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), whose own investigation into the 2016 Irreecha was not credible, is affiliated with the government and is in no sense independent.

International guidelines, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, stipulate that security forces should seek to avoid the use of force and ensure that its use, where necessary, is strictly proportionate. Security forces should exercise restraint when using teargas in situations when its use could cause death or serious injury.

“Last year’s tragedy was triggered by the government’s botched effort to control the event,” Horne said. “This year, the government should consider whether a much lighter security force presence would best serve to minimize the potential for violence, and in any case, ensure that security force personnel minimize and seek to avoid any use of force.”

Source: Human Rights Watch

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