Concern over crackdown on opposition and dissenters ahead of 2020 elections

Ethiopia’s national elections, initially set for May 2020, will take place in August 2020 amid ongoing intercommunal, ethnic tensions over land and livelihoods, especially in the Oromia Regional State. The election date was pushed back due to the social distancing rules and lockdown order in place in Ethiopia, as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic which saw Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declare a state of emergency on 8th April 2020. A report by the International Crisis Group, published on 16th April 2020, states that the postponement may mean that Ethiopia will have to form an interim government before the term of the current parliament ends in early October 2020.

Association

In January 2020, it was confirmed by Amnesty International that at least 75 supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were arrested in Oromia Regional State, as Ethiopian authorities intensified the crackdown on dissenting political views ahead of the general elections.The arrests took place across the state including in Finchawa town in the West Guji Zone of Oromia, and Shambu town in the Horo-Guduru Wallaga Zone of Oromia. Among those arrested was Chaltu Takele, a prominent political activist, who had spent more than eight years in prison between 2008 and 2016, accused of being a member of the OLF. The arrests were a stark contrast to positive developments by the government in 2018, as reported by the Monitor, when the Ethiopian Parliament removed the OLF from a list of banned terrorist organisations amid reforms, as exiled opposition groups returned to the country to pursue a peaceful opposition struggle. Since February 2019, police and military officers however embarked on mass arrests and detention of opposition activists, most of whom were released between September and November 2019.

Separately, Oromia Liyu police raided opposition party supporters at an inauguration event for the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) office in Welenchiti on 15th February 2020. The police, who fired live bullets, killed one person and arrested and injured many more. Later the same day, police arrested around 30 guests at a hotel launch party in Burayu and drove them to a sports stadium where they were allegedly beaten and humiliated for hours.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East and Southern Africa, Seif Magango said.

“Raids on opposition gatherings must not be allowed to become a feature of the pre-election period. The authorities must immediately launch an independent and effective investigation into these attacks and hold suspects to account in fair trials… It is outrageous that the authorities charged with ensuring the security and safety of members of the public can brutally attack people going about their business with no regard for human life. The Ethiopian authorities must denounce these attacks in the strongest terms and ensure such scenes are not repeated.”

In a related incident, on 3rd March 2020, Abdi Regassa, a senior member of the opposition OLF party, went missing since security officers broke into his home in Addis Ababa and arrested him along with eight other party members on 29th February 2020.The other party members were all released within 24 hours of their arrest after the police confiscated their mobile phones, driving licences, passports and bank ATM cards.

Several days later, after his whereabouts became known, two journalists - Dessu Dulla and Wako Nole - and their driver, Ismael Abdulrzaq, were arrested shortly after they left the Burayu police station, where they had traveled to speak with Regassa who was being held there in detention. Two OLF party members who also visited him were arrested.

CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo said;

“Holding journalists for weeks without charge is a violation of their basic rights and a clear effort to intimidate the press; Ethiopia must release Dessu Dulla, Wako Nole, and Ismael Abdulrzaq immediately… Journalists must be allowed to cover regional politics without official interference or fear that they will be arbitrarily arrested.”

Abdi was a commander in OLF’s armed wing while it operated from exile prior to 2018.

In other developments, Ethiopia’s Parliament passed a new anti-terrorism law on 2nd January 2020, which contains fewer restrictions on political gatherings and broadens the reforms introduced under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The new legislation affirms workers’ right to strike even when this would lead to a disruption of public services - previously deemed to be an act of terrorism. It also replaces vague provisions such as ‘encouraging terrorism’ with more specific provisions targeting incitement. However, the new legislation received criticism from human rights actors, who say that the new version still holds elements which can be used against government critics. For instance, it criminalises the offence of ‘intimidation to commit a terrorist act’ which some consider to be overly vague, and it also empowers the parliament to ban terrorist organisations, a mandate which was used previously to ban opposition parties.

Amid the crackdown on dissenting voices and opposition members as the elections inch closer, on 22nd January 2020 the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia gave recognition to Balderas for Genuine Democracy, a newly established political party led by a former human rights activist and journalist Eskinder Nega.

In positive developments, on 25th February 2020 it was reported that dozens of high-profile prisoners, including opposition activists held over an alleged coup attempt previously reported on the Monitor, and other high-profile government critics would soon be released from prison. A spokesman for the attorney general's office said that investigations had been dropped against 63 individuals and they would be released from custody later that week "for the national good". Other individuals who were set for release included activists from the Sidama ethnic group and Biniam Tewolde, a former deputy director of Ethiopia's hyper intelligence agency INSA, who was jailed in 2018 for corruption.

Expression

On 31st March 2020, the deputy president of the Oromia region announced that phone and internet services would be restored in Wollega, Oromia, amid criticism that the shutdown would deprive citizens of information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Communications in the Wollega area had been shut down in January 2020 as the military embarked on an operation against rebel group Oromo Liberation Army. The shutdown however left millions of people without vital access to relevant news concerning the pandemic, including public health information and services that are being relayed through national mobile phone campaigns.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, has characterised sweeping Internet shutdowns as incompatible with states’ international human rights obligations.He said in a statement:

“Internet access is critical at a time of crisis,” … Especially at a time of emergency, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds.”

In a separate development, Ethiopia's parliament passed a law on 13th February 2020, months before the anticipated elections, which criminalises "hate speech" and "disinformation" by imposing heavy fines and long prison terms despite rights groups saying it undermines free speech. The new law defines hate speech as rhetoric that fuels discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities, and imposes fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr (3,100 USD) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or publishes social media posts believed to incite violence or disturbance of public order.

Peaceful Assembly

On 10th January 2020, at least a dozen protestors were injured and one killed after security forces fired live bullets at protesting university students at Bule Hora University in Oromia. The students held the demonstration to call on the federal government to end ongoing armed conflict in west Oromia which has been at the centre of armed conflict for several months.