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Human Rights Watch urges Ethiopia to release seven Oromo opposition figures held without charges for nearly three years

Addis Abeba – Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for the immediate release of seven Oromo opposition figures, which it says have been arbitrarily detained by Ethiopian authorities for nearly three years solely due to their political involvement.

The detainees, senior members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a previously banned political opposition group advocating for Oromo self-determination, have been held by Oromia police since 2020 and 2021, despite multiple court orders ordering their release. According to HWR, no legal justification has been provided for their continued detention without charges.

Laetitia Bader, Deputy Africa Director at HRW, criticized the Ethiopian law enforcement agencies for abusing the justice system through the unjust and prolonged detention of these Oromo opposition politicians. “The Ethiopian government should immediately release them and ensure that wrongful detention is no longer used as a tool of political repression.”

In order to prepare its latest report, HRW conducted phone interviews with nine relatives, defense lawyers, and an OLF party official, on top of reviewing court documents and medical records. The investigation uncovered instances of forced disappearances, incommunicado detentions, denial of legal representation, and limited contact with family members for extended periods, ranging from weeks to up to eight months.

The arrests began in late February 2020 with the detention of Abdi Regassa, a member of the OLF’s executive committee, on suspicion of killing a police officer in Burayu, on the outskirts of Addis Abeba. Abdi’s lawyers and family members remained unaware of his whereabouts for more than two months. Eventually, he was moved to at least eight different detention sites in Oromia, including a special forces camp in Gelan, where he was held incommunicado for eight months.

In July 2020, Lammi Begna, Dawit Abdeta, Kenessa Ayana, Michael Boran, and several other opposition figures and journalists were arrested by Oromia police following the assassination of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. The detainees’ locations were frequently changed, with some being held at a former poultry farm outside Awash Melkassa, utilized by the Oromia Special Forces. According to HRW, these transfers were made without informing family members and lawyers, causing significant distress and uncertainty about the detainees’ well-being.

In April 2023, the Oromia police authorities transferred seven detainees from a Burayu police station and withheld information regarding their whereabouts. It took the families two weeks to locate them. The detainees reappeared in the town of Dukem, 37 kilometers southeast of Addis Abeba, after a week. A lawyer from the defense team informed HRW that the police did not provide any explanation or reason for the transfer, and all seven detainees were confined to a small room with poor sanitary conditions.

HRW said that despite the fact that regional and federal courts have called for the release of all detainees, authorities have ignored court orders and filed appeals. While the case files against Michael Boran, Kenessa Ayana, and Gaada Gebissa were closed between November 2021 and January 2022 due to lack of evidence, they all remain detained without any charges. Gaada Oljira has never been formally charged. Abdi Regassa initially faced murder charges, which were later dropped. He was then accused of telecommunication fraud and terrorism-related charges, of which he was eventually acquitted.

The report additionally highlighted the deteriorating health conditions of Kenessa Ayana, suffering from chronic diabetes and liver complications and now relying on crutches or a wheelchair for mobility, as well as Gaada Gebissa, who is infected with Hepatitis B. In view of these distressing findings, HRW has called for the immediate release of the seven detained opposition figures. AS

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