Ethiopia rights inquiry: 669 protest deaths but security response “mostly proportional”

Protesters last year in Oromiya, Ethiopia (Press TV / Youtube)

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has concluded an inquiry into the 2015-2016 anti-government protests, acknowledging that 669 people were killed while nonetheless praising government forces for generally displaying restraint, except in some areas where they are accused of using excessive force.

Presenting the EHRC’s findings to the parliament on Tuesday, Commissioner Addisu Gebregziabher said that in the largest regional state, Oromiya, 495 people died among whom 36 were security personnel while 464 others were wounded.

Oromiya is where the unrest originated, initially as a protest against a proposed city master plan, later growing into a broader movement demanding economic and political reforms.

In Amhara, the second largest state, 110 civilians and 30 security officials were killed, according to the commission. 336 people were also injured. Protests in the Amhara region were ignited in July 2016 partly in solidarity with the Oromiya protests but also over reports that part of the region’s territory would be annexed by the neighboring state of Tigray.

The commission blamed protesters who staged unauthorized demonstrations in Amhara regional state, saying they also carried out illegal activities which included burning flags and prison riots. The measures taken by security forces in several towns in the state, including in the capital Bahir Dar and in Gondar, the epicenter of the protests, were proportional, the report says.

Similarly, in Borena and Arsi areas of the Oromiya region, security forces took proportional measures, the commission found. It said the security apparatus did not cause the deaths of people during the Oromo thanksgiving day of Irrecha, on October 2nd last year, deflecting criticism that tear gas fired by the authorities had instigated a deadly stampede that killed scores. The commission pointed out that security personnel had not fired on the crowd and found that the use of tear gas was a proportionate response.

Instead, the commission blamed ESAT and OMN, opposition media outlets based in Europe and the US, saying they fueled turbulence and called for violence.

Call for prosecutions

In Awoday, Dedessa and Adami Tulu, small towns in eastern and southern Oromiya, security forces are to be blamed for their excessive use of forces that resulted in the deaths of several civilians, maintains the report. Commissioner Addisu urged for legal measures against the culprits. Likewise, in the Dembia, Dangala, Debark, Debre Tabor and Ibnat districts of the Amhara region security forces took excessive measures that call for prosecutions, says Addisu.

The death toll in Gedeo district of the Southern Peoples, Nations and Nationalities regional state is 34, says the report, referring to unrest fueled by irresponsible acts by the district administration, the local police force and local opposition.

While critics often question the impartiality of the EHRC, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn defended the commission arguing it is an independent body albeit lacking in capacity. Speaking to the BBC a little before the release of the report, Hailemariam rejected the call for a United Nations inquiry.

On the other hand, Mulatu Gemechu, deputy chairperson of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress dismissed the report arguing the commission is a government mouthpiece. The government “is a witness and a judge. It is the prosecutor and the investigator,” says Mulatu. “It did everything on its own.”

In the meantime, Ethiopia has extended its six-month state of emergency, which is credited for the restoration of calm to the country. Lawmakers cited simmering ‘anti-peace elements’ when voting in March to extend emergency measures.