Ethiopia

Ethiopia: Government crackdown countrywide, rights group says

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ADDIS ABABA, 15 June (IRIN) - Thousands of people have been arrested across Ethiopia following the recent violence triggered by demonstrations against alleged fraud in parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

"The security forces have killed dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country," Georgette Gagnon, the HRW deputy director for Africa, said in statement.

HRW said the security forces had responded to incidents of rock-throwing and looting "by opening fire indiscriminately on large crowds of people, killing at least 36 and wounding more than 100".

The New-York-based lobby group said student activists and opposition supporters had been rounded up in towns and cities in a crackdown after last week's fighting.

"Opposition rhetoric may well have contributed to last week's unrest, but the government must take responsibility for the conduct of its own security forces," Gagnon added.

Ethiopian federal police said some detainees were being held at Ziway detention facility, about 150 km south of the capital, Addis Ababa.

"I don't have the exact figure but some detainees are there [Ziway] because of these disturbances," Mulgeta Shiferaw, a police commander, told IRIN.

HRW said it had obtained reports of mass arrests in at least nine cities outside the capital since the protests began on 6 June.

"While international attention has focused on events in Addis Ababa, opposition members and students in other cities are increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrest and torture," Gagnon said.

She said many of the people arrested in original round-ups had been released "but smaller-scale arrests targeting CUD [Coalition for Unity and democracy] supporters and student activists have continued unabated".

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced on Monday on state television that a ban on demonstrations would be extended for another month to prevent further unrest.

The capital, the scene of the worst violence, has returned to normal with the city's 14,000 blue taxis returning to work, and shops and business opening for business again.

Ethiopia has come under heavy criticism from the international community for the "excessive force" security forces used against stone-throwing demonstrators alleging massive election fraud.

"The Ethiopian police have acted as a Goliath toward student protestors by answering slingshots with the ferocity of firearms," William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International-USA, said.

Six policemen were arrested at the weekend after a newly elected opposition legislator was shot and killed in southern Ethiopia in the latest outburst of violence.

Last week's bloodshed in Addis Ababa was not the first time Ethiopian security forces had killed large numbers of protesters, HRW said. It cited events in 2001 and 2002 when the police killed several protesting students and other civilians.

Ethiopia's ruling party, which has pledged itself to democratic reform, claimed victory in legislative elections held on 15 May based on provisional results.

The violence that has followed threatens to destabilise Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, which faces recurring drought and widespread hunger.

The civil unrest could also put a strain on Meles' relations with the international community.

Meles is a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, which has called on the developed world to increase aid and trade to Africa, and urged African countries to move toward more open societies.

Finance ministers from the world's wealthiest countries on Saturday agreed to include Ethiopia in a list of 18 countries to receive total debt relief in order to assist development.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia's political rivals on Tuesday signed a declaration renewing a deal to try to end violence and launch an investigation into election complaints.

"This is a breakthrough and should now get the political process back on track," Tim Clarke, the European Commission head and mediator of the talks, said.

The agreement lays the groundwork for all political parties to play a role in the investigations of complaints over the elections.

Political parties have lodged complaints in 299 of the 547 constituencies in Ethiopia.

[ENDS]

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