Ethiopia: New crackdown sees ‘many thousands’ of Tigrayans arrested

By The Africa Report
Posted on Monday, 15 November 2021 09:31

Ethiopian PM's backers hold a rally in support of national army in Addis Ababa
Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force are seen during a pro-government rally to denounce what the organisers say is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Western countries' interference in internal affairs of the country, at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 7, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Thousands of Tigrayans have been detained in a wave of mass arrests under a state of emergency introduced in Ethiopia earlier this month. Witnesses and rights groups claim the arrests are ethnically-motivated.

The emergency order requires people to carry their IDs at all times and allows the police to arrest and detain, without a warrant, anyone suspected of working with terrorist groups, such as the outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It also gives the authorities powers to close roads, impose curfews, conduct searches and revoke licenses of media and civil society organisations.

One clause in the order appears to pave the way for conscription by granting a new emergency command the ability to order citizens in possession of private firearms to take military training. Another clause allows the command to dissolve local government structures.

Hundreds of homes and offices have been raided since the measures came in and checkpoints have sprung up around Addis Ababa causing long tail backs.

Plainclothes police officers pick people from cafés and bars as groups of vigilantes wielding sticks patrol some parts of the capital, Addis Ababa, and report people they do not recognise to the authorities.

Last week, the command post set up under the state of emergency ordered landlords to register their tenants’ details with local police stations, threatening legal action against those who fail to do so. It said the measure was needed to identify “those who pose a threat to public safety.”

It is not clear how many people have been arrested so far, although a diplomat tells The Africa Report that “many, many thousands” have been detained. Queues of people waiting for news of friends and relatives swept up in the arrests are a common sight outside police stations.

The government insists it is only targeting people aiding rebels led by the TPLF, which recently captured several towns and threatened to march on Addis Ababa after one year of fighting. However, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission warns that the arrests appear to be “based on ethnicity”, and several Tigrayans in the capital tell The Africa Report that they are living in fear.

If they arrest me, they may take me away somewhere… Maybe they will drag me into the military and make me fight because they have a shortage of troops.

Solomon, a Tigrayan resident of the capital who works for a religious charity, says police took his colleague from his home shortly after the emergency was declared. He says when he tried to take food to him at the police station where he was being held, he was arrested as well and detained for 12 hours.

“They didn’t give any reason when they detained me,” he says. “They asked me, ‘Are you Tigrayan?’ and then I said, ‘I’m Ethiopian actually, I have a right to visit my friend.’ They said they were detaining Tigrayans because they had an order from the government.”

Another Tigrayan from Addis Ababa says seven of his relatives have been arrested under the new emergency orders, including two of his uncles, an aunt and several of his cousins. Two of them were taken from their home during a midnight raid, while another two were arrested from their offices at Ethiopian telecom, the state network provider, and the federal ministry of transport, he says.

“We don’t know where they are,” he tells The Africa Report. “They were initially taken to a police station, but they don’t know where they went after that. Nobody has told us. They have never been involved in politics. They were taken simply because they are from Tigray.”

He says he is living in fear of arrest. “They simply come, they check your ID and if they see you are Tigra[ya]n, they arrest you. There is no debate.”

Last week, the United Nations said at least 16 of its local staff had been arrested in Addis Ababa, but did not mention their ethnicity. However, two humanitarian sources say they were all ethnic Tigrayans. Around 70 truck drivers working for the UN have also been detained in Semera, the main starting point for aid convoys attempting to reach Tigray.

The US State Department has condemned the arrests of the UN staffers and described reports of ethnic profiling as concerning. “The reports do tend to suggest an arrest based on ethnicity and [if] that is something that [is] confirmed, we would strongly condemn. So whatever we can do to secure the release of these individuals, we will be prepared to do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

A police spokesman denied that the arrests were based on ethnicity and said many detainees had been caught with weapons. At a press briefing last week, the foreign ministry spokesman described reports of ethnic profiling as “not true” and dismissed them as “disinformation.”

Yet Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in Ethiopia affirm that they are living in fear. One Tigrayan, who asks to remain anonymous, says he knows several of his friends have been arrested, including five priests who were seized from their homes in separate night raids. “If you are Tigrayan, they treat you like a terrorist. They think you support the TPLF,” he says.

Like others who spoke to The Africa Report, he says he was “moving from place to place” and not venturing outside during the day. He believes he could be forcibly recruited into the armed forces if he is arrested.

“If they arrest me, they may take me away somewhere,” he says. “Maybe they will drag me into the military and make me fight because they have a shortage of troops. I am feeling very afraid.”

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