“Fuel on the Fire”

Security Force Response to the 2016 Irreecha Cultural Festival

Summary

On October 2, 2016 scores of people, possibly hundreds, died at the annual Irreecha cultural festival of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo people, following a stampede triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and discharge of firearms in response to an increasingly restive crowd. Some died after falling into a deep open trench, others drowned in the nearby lake while fleeing security forces, and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that others were shot by security forces. Many were trampled after armed security forces blocked main roads exiting the site, leaving those fleeing with few options.

Irreecha is the most important cultural festival of Ethiopia’s 35 million ethnic Oromos who gather to celebrate the end of the rainy season and welcome the harvest season. Massive crowds, estimated in the millions, gather each year at Bishoftu, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa every year. Until 2016, there had never been any major incidents or security problems despite annual massive crowds.

Ethiopian government and security officials should act with restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival on October 1, 2017.

The government eventually said the official death toll was 55 people but opposition groups estimate nearly 700 died. Neither figure has been substantiated or explained. An investigation by the government affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was not transparent or credible and there is no evidence of accountability.

One year on, government has failed to meaningfully investigate the security forces’ response, and there is no independent and credible determination of the death toll. Based on analysis of dozens of videos and photos and over 50 interviews with attendees and other witnesses, this report documents the abuses which occurred on October 2, 2016 at Bishoftu. It is not intended to be a comprehensive investigation; rather, the findings underscore the need, not only for credible investigations into what occurred in 2016, but also for the government to ensure security forces refrain from the unnecessary use of force and act professionally at this year’s event, currently scheduled for October 1, 2017.

The 2016 Irreecha festival was held following a year of protests against government policies and security force aggression that left over 1000 people dead across Ethiopia and tens of thousands detained by security forces.

Faced with longstanding tensions that had been greatly exacerbated by a year of brutal repression, the government attempted to play a more dominant role than in previous years with increased security presence and attempts to control who took the stage during the 2016 Irreecha. According to attendees, this prompted anger within the crowd and led some people to get on stage to lead anti-government chants. The security forces initially sought to control the crowds, using teargas. Later, witnesses described security forces firing into the crowd using live ammunition.

In several videos recorded at the scene, numerous gunshots could clearly be heard as crowds flee. Witnesses reported seeing people killed with bullet wounds.

Ethiopia’s then communication minister and other senior officials stated that security forces were unarmed and there was no live ammunition at Irreecha, despite photos clearly showing heavily armed security forces at the event and several witness accounts of gunfire and bullet wounds.

International guidelines, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, stipulate that the police should use force only as a last resort, and refrain from the use of firearms except in the face of extreme danger to themselves or others that cannot be prevented by other means. While the crowd at Irreecha was chanting anti-government slogans, and expressing anger against the government, it does not appear that there was violence from the crowd or an imminent threat to security forces.

There were numerous protests around Bishoftu in the hours and days after the event. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces shot live ammunition during some of these protests as well. In the days that followed, many individuals who attended Irreecha were arrested in their home communities.

In the week that followed, angry youth attacked government buildings and private businesses, leading to an abusive and far-reaching state of emergency, lifted in August 2017. During the state of emergency, security forces arbitrarily detained over 21,000 people in “rehabilitation camps,” artists, politicians, and journalists were tried on politically motivated charges; there were increased limitations on internet access; and many communities reported heavier than usual military presence.

Despite government promises of “deep reform” to address protester grievances, there has been little movement on fundamental issues raised by protesters, including the lack of political space and brutality of the security forces, during the year-long protests heightening tensions further ahead of this year’s Irreecha.

The government expressed regret over the loss of life at the 2016 Irreecha, but also exonerated security forces, blaming the chaos and deaths, as it often does, on “anti-peace forces.” Many Oromo interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they believe the heavy-handed security forces’ response at Irreecha was an intentional and planned massacre, a narrative whose resonance only serves to increase tensions still further ahead of this year’s festival, which could be a flashpoint for further unrest.

The government has strongly resisted calls for international investigations, including into Irreecha. The consistent lack of credibility of government investigations into ongoing abuses and the scale of the crimes being committed are a compelling argument for the need for an independent, international investigation into abuses during the protests, the state of emergency and the events on October 2. Ethiopia’s international allies should call on the government to agree to such an inquiry.

Importantly, the government should take urgent steps to ensure Irreecha 2017 unfolds with far greater restraint and competence on the part of the security forces, and that effective steps are taken to minimize and de-escalate any risk of violence. The government should consider whether a smaller or lower-profile security presence would be the best way to accomplish those goals. Security forces should expect and tolerate free expression which may be critical of the policies of the ruling party and not use force or threat of force to silence critical speech.