(Nairobi, August 15, 2012) – The Ethiopian government should immediately release 17 prominent Muslim leaders arrested as part of a brutal crackdown on peaceful Muslim protesters in Addis Ababa, Human Rights Watch said today. A court is expected to rule during the week of August 13, 2012, on whether to bring charges against the detainees who have been held for almost three weeks in a notorious prison without access to lawyers.
Since July 13, Ethiopian police and security services have harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Muslims at Addis Ababa’s Awalia and Anwar mosques who were protesting government interference in religious affairs, Human Rights Watch said. Many have been released but at least 17 prominent members of the community arrested between July 19 and 21 remain in detention. A number of protesters who have been released told Human Rights Watch that they were mistreated in custody.
“The Ethiopian government should address the grievances of its Muslim community through dialogue, not violence,” said Ben Rawlence, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces should be upholding the law, not breaking it.”
According to official figures, Muslims make up approximately 30 percent of Ethiopia’s population, the second largest religion in the historically Christian country.
The crackdown followed months of widespread peaceful protests, petitions, and appeals by the Muslim community in response to what they considered to be unconstitutional government interference in Muslim affairs. This included government attempts to determine the makeup of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs by imposing members of and the teachings of an Islamic sect known as al Ahbash on the community, and seeking to control the operations of Awalia mosque.
The Muslim community created a committee in January to represent it in discussions with the government. The 17 prominent Muslims currently detained include seven of the committee members, along with nine other religious leaders and activists, and at least one journalist. An additional six people, all members of the Awalia Student Council, were arrested the previous week.
The Muslim leaders and student council members are being held in pre-trial detention without charge at the notorious Federal Police Crime Investigation Department, known as Maekelawi prison, in Addis Ababa. They have had no access to legal counsel or, in several cases, their relatives. Their lack of access to lawyers while detained in a prison known for torture heightens concerns about their safety, Human Rights Watch said.
It is unclear what the detainees will be charged with. According to unconfirmed reports, they are under investigation on unspecified charges under the country’s overly broad anti-terrorism law.
This week, the 28-day remand period that is stipulated only under the anti-terrorism law expires, and the detainees are therefore expected to appear before the court.
“The arrest of 17 prominent Muslims for exercising their basic rights to free speech is just the latest misuse of Ethiopia’s laws, and notably its anti-terrorism law,” Rawlence said. “All those held should be immediately released unless the government can promptly produce credible evidence of unlawful activity.”
Excessive Use of Force
Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on July 13, as hundreds of worshippers gathered at Addis Ababa’s Awalia mosque to prepare for a July 15 awareness-raising event, federal police forcibly entered the mosque, breaking doors and windows, and fired teargas inside. They beat people gathered there, including women and children, and made numerous arrests. A witness said that police beat a disabled woman, forcing her to the ground and then continuing to beat her. One man said teargas was fired directly at him inside the mosque before the police beat him.
People at the mosque sent out an appeal for help, leading scores of people to converge on the mosque in the Gullele financial district. Police forces encircling the mosque and its compound assaulted the people approaching the mosque, beating and arresting many of them.
A witness described seeing blood-soaked victims by the roadside on the way to the mosque. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw scores of men and women being loaded into separate trucks. Many appeared to have broken bones and other serious injuries, apparently inflicted by the police, the witnesses said.
On July 21, police broke up a sit-in at the Anwar mosque in response to the arrests of the committee members. The police entered the compound, then beat and arrested large numbers of people, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. One man told Human Rights Watch that he was beaten until he lost consciousness. The government said publicly that the protesters had started throwing stones at the police.
Arbitrary Detention and Mistreatment of Detainees
The Ethiopian government told the media that 74 people were arrested on July 13, though witnesses and members of the Muslim community said that hundreds had been detained.
Those rounded up on July 13 were taken to police stations across Addis Ababa, notably Kolfe Keraneyo and Gullele, and to Maekelawi Prison.
Many released detainees told Human Rights Watch that the police mistreated them.
A witness told Human Rights Watch that in Kolfe Keraneyo, the police forced at least two women to take off their hijab (head covering) and that they spat on one when she refused. The second, a young woman who was detained with her young son, was sexually assaulted by a policeman, who pulled the hijab off and grabbed her breast. Detainees, even some who already had been injured, described being beaten with sticks and the butt of a gun when they arrived at various police stations.
About two dozen of the people initially detained at Maekelawi were subsequently taken to Sendafa police training camp, several kilometers outside of Addis Ababa, where they allege they were mistreated. People who were detained at both Maekelawi and Sendefa described being forced to run barefoot on sharp stones. Two protesters detained at Sendafa for 10 days were beaten and made to carry out harsh physical labor, they told Human Rights Watch.
The majority of those arrested between July 13 and 21 have since been released, in several cases after having been made to sign a document. Some said they were made to sign the document without being allowed to read the content.
Reports that the police and other security services beat and otherwise mistreated the 17 prominent Muslim leaders and others while in custody should be thoroughly and impartially investigated, Human Rights Watch said.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on July 20, police came to the home of Yusuf Getachew, the editor-in-chief of a popular Muslim magazine Yemuslimoch Guday (Muslim Affairs), intimidated his family, looted cash and phones, and arrested Getachew. His relatives were subsequently informed that he was at Maekelawi, but they have been repeatedly refused permission to visit him.
A witness said that Ahmedin Jebel, the spokesman for the Muslim committee, was arrested that evening and badly beaten by police.
In addition to the 17 prominent community members in Maekelawi, other prominent members of the Muslim community have been under house arrest since July 21. The families of two journalists from Yemuslimoch Guday, Akemel Negash and Isaac Eshetu, were held under house arrest for at least 10 days. The police reportedly searched the houses of many Muslim leaders, activists, and journalists.
Muslim leaders in Ethiopia have faced ongoing harassment during the last eight months. Ahmedin Jebel and the same two journalists from Yemuslimoch Guday were detained for four days at Maekelawi in mid-December. The crackdown on Muslim dissidents has extended beyond the capital. On August 5, three imams were arrested in the town of Gelemesso in East Harerge. And on August 10, according to a credible source, the police used teargas and beat protesters outside the Areb Genda mosque in the north-central town of Dessie.
Since 2011 the Ethiopian government has convicted at least 34 opposition members, journalists, and others on similar offenses under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch has strongly criticized the law itself and its use, calling for the release of political prisoners sentenced under the law and for amendments of the law’s most abusive provisions. This includes its broad definition of terrorist acts, which can include peaceful protests that result in the “disruption of any public services,” and its vague provisions that proscribe support or encouragement of terrorism, which can include public reporting on banned terrorist groups.
The anti-terrorism law also contains provisions that violate fundamental due process rights. For instance, the provision on pre-trial detention allows suspects to be held in custody for up to four months without charge, one of the longest periods in anti-terrorism legislation worldwide.
“In the hands of the Ethiopian government, the anti-terrorism law is becoming a multi-purpose tool used against any kind of dissent,” Rawlence said.