NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Authorities in Ethiopia are carrying out mass arrests of hundreds, even thousands, of people in the capital after deadly unrest in the country’s Amhara region, lawyers and witnesses said.
Ethiopia’s Cabinet declared a state of emergency earlier this month in Amhara after local militia fighters known as Fano seized control of several major towns, which the military has since retaken by force. The Fano, who fought alongside Ethiopian military forces in a two-year conflict in the neighboring Tigray region, have resisted being disbanded after a peace deal last November.
Ethiopia’s parliament is to vote Monday on giving formal approval to extraordinary measures which allow authorities to arrest suspects without a warrant, conduct searches and impose curfews. Under the previous state of emergency imposed during the Tigray conflict, tens of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were rounded up across the country.
This time, “there has been widespread arrest of civilians who are of ethnic Amhara origin,” the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said Monday, calling on the federal authorities to cease the detentions.
Activists say ethnic Amharas are being targeted in the mass arrests.
Two lawyers said the emergency measures also appear to be in effect in the capital, Addis Ababa, where suspects are being held at police stations, schools and other makeshift detention centers after being swept off the streets. The lawyers, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
One lawyer said he visited seven schools and police stations last week where “hundreds” of people were held. The other lawyer, citing police sources, said 3,000 people had been arrested in Addis Ababa.
A third lawyer said he encountered several young people last week at police stations and courts in Addis Ababa who had been arrested and accused of having links to the Fano militia.
One man, an ethnic Amhara, said he was picked up off the street last week by plainclothes police officers who overheard him discussing the recent unrest on the phone. He said he was held at a school with hundreds of others before being taken to a police station. He was released on Thursday without any charge.
Another man said his brother was arrested in Addis Ababa a day before the state of emergency was declared and is being detained at a school with several hundred others. Most of the detainees there are young boys, said the man, who has visited his brother twice.
The federal government said only 23 people have been arrested under the state of emergency in Addis Ababa. Those include Christian Tadele, an outspoken opposition lawmaker who should have immunity from arrest under Ethiopia’s Constitution as a member of parliament.
“(N)o suspect has been arrested apart from these 23 individuals and the information circulating that there are mass arrests is wrong,” the federal government’s communication service said a statement Friday.
On Saturday, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission urged that the state of emergency be limited to one month and “to the specific place where the special danger is said to have occurred, rather than applying it throughout the entire country.”
The commission on Monday said it had confirmed “heavy fighting in and around cities and towns across the Amhara region, which involved the use of heavy artillery resulting in the deaths and injuries of civilians, as well as damage to property.”
It said prisons and police stations in the region were broken into and that Amhara regional officials were the target of attacks, with some killed, “resulting in the temporary collapse of local state structure in many areas.”