ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Witnesses say thousands of Tigrayans are being detained and their businesses closed in cities across Ethiopia in a new wave of ethnic targeting by authorities over the eight-month conflict in the Tigray region.
The detentions follow the dramatic turn in the war last month when resurgent Tigray forces marched into the regional capital, Mekele, as Ethiopian soldiers retreated and Ethiopia’s government announced a unilateral cease-fire. An earlier wave of detentions followed the start of the war in November after months of tensions between the government and Tigray’s leaders.
Meron Addis, a 32-year-old attorney who has raised money for food and other aid to people in Tigray and has been outspoken about the toll on civilians, told The Associated Press that two plainclothes police officers came to her home in the capital, Addis Ababa, on June 28 and accused her of storing weapons. Then dozens of uniformed officers searched the place without presenting a warrant, she said.
After finding no weapons, they took her to a police station where she was charged with expressing support for the Tigray forces and spreading hate on social media. She met several other Tigrayans while in custody and was released a week later.
Police told her she was helping the “junta,” a common term used by authorities for the Tigray fighters. “You are causing friction between the government and the people of Tigray by posting pictures on Facebook of children and victims of the war, hunger and rape,” she said they told her. After her release, two of her relatives were detained.
Another detainee who was released last week told the AP that several dozen other Tigrayans were held in a center in the outskirts of the capital.
“At first we were told that we were suspected of having links with the (Tigray fighters). Once in jail, they began accusing us of sending money to support terrorists and vowed we won’t be released unless Ethiopian prisoners of war under the control of the (Tigray forces) are released,” he said. “None of us were brought to court.” Like many others, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
With Ethiopia’s government having declared Tigray’s ruling party a terrorist group, ordinary Tigrayans across the country are under even more pressure even as they seek to speak out about alleged war atrocities and send aid to the region as hundreds of thousands of people face the world’s worst famine crisis in a decade,
And Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a speech after the Ethiopian forces’ retreat alleged that ordinary Tigrayans had supported the Tigray fighters.
The new wave of mass detentions has not been publicly acknowledged by security officials. Federal police spokesman Jeylanr Abdi didn’t respond to questions, but the federal police told the Addis Standard media outlet they don’t arrest citizens based on ethnicity.
The governmental Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, however, said it is monitoring the detentions of Tigrayans and media workers suspected of links to the situation in Tigray. “Such measures aggravate the public’s concerns on the risk of ethnic profiling,” it said in a statement.
A Tigrayan activist told the AP the detentions appear to be occurring in major cities across Ethiopia. “People who have never set foot in the Tigray region and those who have no knowledge of politics are becoming victims,” he said, adding that some are fleeing the capital out of fear of being detained.
A letter from Tigrayan lawyers to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, obtained by the AP, said the fate of thousands of people remains unknown. And “hundreds of Tigrayan businesses in Addis Ababa, including restaurants, bars, cafes and other places, have been closed and sealed with no apparent reason than the claim of security concerns,” it reads. “This campaign against Tigrayans must be stopped because it is a dangerous practice that violates the rights of citizens without sufficient evidence.”
One lawyer, Tesfalem Berhe, said he has compiled a list of 103 Tigrayans detained in the capital in the past few weeks. Many were taken at shops, cafes and bus stations because their IDs showed their ethnicity or because they were speaking Tigrinya, he said. Others were taken from their homes.
“They are disappeared,” he said, estimating that tens of thousands have been detained. “They are not given access to their families and lawyers. … There is no allegation of crime. It is purely ethnic profiling.“
A Tigrayan civil servant in the capital told the AP he watched as a colleague was detained by two plainclothes officers at the health center where he worked. When the colleague’s manager asked why, the officers cited unspecified “security reasons.”
“I’m very nervous because we hear about lots of people being arrested. I worry the police and security services are monitoring us, so I barely talk on the phone,” the civil servant said. “For every Tigrayan in Addis Ababa, it’s hard for us at this time because of the political situation.”
Tsegazeab Kidanu, a volunteer coordinator for a civil society group that campaigns against human rights abuses in Tigray, was detained at his home on June 29 while he was watching TV in his pajamas, a relative said. Again, a warrant wasn’t presented. He wasn’t charged.
Authorities later told his lawyer, Tesfalem, that he had been released, but his whereabouts remain unknown.