The level of violence against the Oromo people in Ethiopia during Hachalu Hundesa protests was simply shocking. The shocking brutality, the brazen killings and arrests, already condemned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, have not been fully comprehended by the international community still focused on the deadly coronavirus.
The killing on June 29 of Hachalu Hundesa, a popular outspoken Oromo singer, sparked protests, some of which degenerated into intercommunal violence, which together with a police crackdown left at least 177 dead and hundreds wounded, according to Ethiopia’s Federal Police Commission. Property was also damaged in many parts of the country including Shashemene, Agarfa, Arusi Negele, Dera, and Ziway.
Hachalu Hundesa was a beloved singer whose songs “rallied the country’s youth in sustained protests from 2015 leading to the political reforms witnessed in the country since 2018,” Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, noted in a statement on June 30, a day after the singer was killed.
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“The authorities have opened an investigation into his killing and must now ensure it is prompt, thorough, impartial, independent and effective and bring to justice in fair trials those suspected to be responsible,” added Sarah Jackson.
Hachalu Hundesa, renowned for his politically inspired songs, was shot around 9:30 pm on June 29 in Addis Ababa’s Gelan Condominium area. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival.
On June 22, Hachalu Hundesa was interviewed on the Oromo Media Network (OMN) where he spoke on many controversial issues eliciting public outrage on social media platforms.
According to Addis Standard, a national newspaper, the Addis Ababa Police Commission Commissioner, Getu Argaw, stated that the police had launched an investigation and had “some suspects” in police custody.
There has been an increase in killings of people critical of the government and political personalities in the country since 2019. These include the killing of the Amhara Regional President, Ambachew Mekonnen, and two other top regional officials on June 23, 2019. On the same day, General Seare Mekonnen, the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian army was killed at his home in Addis together with a retired military Major General Gezai Abera. On 3 June 2020 Bekele Bidra, the head of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) office in Bole Sub-City of Addis Ababa was killed in his car.
Amnesty International’s recent report, ‘Beyond law enforcement: human rights violations by Ethiopian security forces in Amhara and Oromia,’ highlighted impunity in Ethiopia and calls for accountability and justice.
According to Amnesty International, in Addis Ababa and Oromia region, the police arrested at least 5,000 people, many of whom are in incommunicado detention with their whereabouts unknown.
Those arrested include leading opposition politicians like Jawar Mohammed from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Eskinder Nega of Balderas for True Democracy party, and journalists.The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to divulge their whereabouts. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to divulge their whereabouts. They must immediately disclose where each detainee is being held, and either charge them with a recognizable crime or release them immediately,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
Muchena wrote that the families are worried about their loved ones being held in crowded, unsanitary conditions in places of detention amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amnesty International added:
“OLF detainees’ whereabouts
Lawyers are unable to establish the whereabouts of key officials of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) including Michael Boran, Shigut Geleta, Lemi Benya, Kenessa Ayana, and Colonel Gemechu Ayana, who were arrested on various dates since Hachalu Hundesa’s death.
They told Amnesty International that the Addis Ababa Police Commission, the Federal Police Commission, the Oromia Police Commission and the Oromia Special Zone authorities have all denied having any of the OLF officials in their custody.They must immediately disclose where each detainee is being held, and either charge them with a recognizable crime or release them immediately. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
Another OLF leader, Abdi Regassa, arrested in February, remains unaccounted for, according to his lawyer, because the police have been moving him from one place of detention to another, such that neither his family nor his lawyers know his whereabouts.
Jawar Mohammed, founder of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) and a member of the OFC, was arrested on June 30 alongside Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba. They were arraigned in court a second time on 16 July and remanded in police custody for two more weeks as investigations continue. Bekele Gerba was arrested with his son, daughter and a nephew, who the courted ordered to be released.
Jawar and Bekele are being held on suspicions of “mishandling of a corpse” (of the late Hachalu Hundesa during a tussle about his burial location), “attempted murder on OPDO (now Prosperity Party) officials”, “initiating violence” and the “murder of a police official”.Pre-trial detention is only permissible when police have solid evidence to support accusations against those arrested. No one should be denied their rights to liberty while police go off on fishing expeditions to justify arrests. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
“Pre-trial detention is only permissible when police have solid evidence to support accusations against those arrested. No one should be denied their rights to liberty while police go off on fishing expeditions to justify arrests,” said Deprose Muchena.
The two were initially held at Addis Ababa Police Commission premises, where they were last seen by their lawyers on 10 July, then found at an underground cell at an unofficial detention location near the Federal Police headquarters in Mexico Square on 14 July. Other OFC detainees were moved to a school in Addis Ababa.
OFC leaders like Dejene Tafa are yet to be presented in court or charged with any crime. His pregnant wife spends her days outside the courthouse just in case he is arraigned so that she may catch a glimpse of him.
“This morning (15 July), the police allowed me to look at him remotely after I begged them considering my pregnancy. The police do not allow me to give him food, allegedly for fear of COVID-19. Even now I am still waiting at the court should the police bring him here,” she said.
Eskinder Nega, a prominent journalist who is now the Chairman of the Balderas for True Democracy party and his deputy Sintayehu Chekol were also arrested on 30 June in Addis Ababa. Eskinder was presented in court on 1 July on suspicions of organizing Addis Ababa youth for violence, and again on 16 July, when the police asked for more time to complete investigations.
Eskinder Nega complained to the court of having been beaten during arrest and detention. The court ordered investigations into the allegations, but according to his lawyer, the police have not done so. The court re-issued the orders.
Two journalists, one an editor of OMN, Melesse Diribsa together with a technician at the media house, Misha Chiri, and a Kenyan journalist, Yassin Juma, were arrested on 2 July and arraigned in court on 4 July. They are due back in court on 18 July but have been denied family and consular visits respectively.Ethiopian authorities must resist the urge to return to the familiar path of repression. They must respect the right to protest and express political dissent. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
Mid July the police arrested Guyo Wario, the OMN journalist who interviewed Hachalu Hundesa about a week before his killing, and Nasir Adem, a photo and video editor at the same media house.
“Ethiopian authorities must resist the urge to return to the familiar path of repression. They must respect the right to protest and express political dissent,” said Deprose Muchena.
“They must also uphold due process and guarantee all detainees’ access to their families and lawyers, and fair trials that adhere to international human rights law and standards.”