Plans to release political prisoners as ethnic tensions spark clashes and protests

Continued clashes between the Oromo and Somali communities in eastern Ethiopia left 20 dead on 27th November 2017. One day prior, the government arrested 98 suspects in Oromia region and five in the Somali region in connection with the ongoing clashes (see also previous Monitor update). The ethnic clashes are fueled by a long-standing border dispute, issues over land, accusations of police brutality and an increased military presence in the regions.

Research group Citizen Lab issued a report on 6th December alleging that surveillance software from an Israeli company has been used to spy on Ethiopians living abroad, notably diaspora-based Oromo dissidents and organisations. As previously reported on the Monitor, documents leaked by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept in September 2017 revealed a sophisticated clandestine eavesdropping network in Ethiopia designed to listen in on the communications of people across the Horn of Africa.


On 3rd January 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that he would release political prisoners, issue pardons and close the Maekelawi Detention Centre in Addis Ababa, which human rights groups have reported as a site of torture. The announcement came after a weeks-long evaluation of the current situation and challenges in the country by the executive committee of the ruling coalition - the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. Details on the release of prisoners or the closure of the Maekelawi Detention Centre are still few, and it remains to be seen which prisoners will be released, when and how. An aid to the Prime Minister later clarified that the announcement was mistranslated and only some, not all prisoners, will be freed. As previously reported on the Monitor, the government arbitrarily arrested and detained some 26,000 people for taking part in protests since 2015, with about 5,000 of them facing trial. A new report by the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia released on 26th November contains testimonies of torture and other inhumane and illegal treatment of political prisoners in detention centres, prisons, military camps and in other undisclosed areas across the country. 

Peaceful Assembly

Reports indicate that security forces killed at least 15 people and injured dozens more in Chelenko, Oromia region on 11th December 2017, during a protest against the alleged killing of Oromo citizen Ahimadin Ahmed Asasa by the Somali regional special police - known as the Liyu - in the continued clashes between the Oromia and Somali ethnic groups (see also last Monitor update). The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia later released a statement calling on Ethiopian authorities to respect the rights of all citizens and hold the perpetrators accountable. 

At the same time, students at several university campuses in the regional states of Omoria and Amhara protested after a student was killed on the weekend of 9th December 2017, as reported by the Addis Standard. The circumstances surrounding the student's death remained unclear at the time of writing, but the killing sparked renewed ethnic tensions at universities and protests continued for several days with the presence of security forces.