September 3, 2011 (LONDON) — Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday urged Ethiopian authorities to immediately release two ethnic Oromo opposition leaders detained on alleged links to outlawed rebel group.
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth (AFP)
Bekele Gerba, deputy chairperson of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and Olbana Lelisa of the Oromo People’s Congress party (OPC) were arrested on Saturday following a meeting they held with delegates from Amnesty International rights group.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Amnesty International said their delegates, who were in contact with the opposition officials, were also ordered by the government to leave country the same day the arrests were made.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the arrests saying they are politically motivated.
However Ethiopian officials claim they have evidence linking those figures to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group recently designated as terrorist organisation by Addis Ababa.
“The arrest of these Oromo leaders appears to be a prime example of the government using the anti-terrorism law to silence the opposition” said Ben Rawlence, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The authorities should immediately release Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa unless there are credible charges against them."
The group said the two opposition politicians appeared in court and are being held without charges under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and have had no access to lawyers or family members.
Adopted in 2009, Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, with broad definition of terrorist acts, was criticised by international rights groups as a repressive law aimed at suppressing dissent, further curtailing press freedom and freedom of speech.
Opposition political parties mainly ethnic Oromos accuse the Ethiopian government of using the law as a weapon to cripple their political role. According to opposition leaders, many of their party members face arrests after being accused of having links to the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Human Rights Watch further said that “as many as 20 other Oromos who were picked up in Addis Ababa and the Oromia region over the weekend are also being held”.
"The Ethiopian authorities’ increasing use of the overbroad terrorism law to detain and intimidate the peaceful opposition is alarming," Rawlence said.
"Filling up Ethiopia’s jails with political prisoners is not the solution to dealing with legitimate criticism."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is Washington’s closest ally in the Horn of Africa but has been criticised by rights groups for crushing dissent. Zenawi says "terrorists" are using political party membership to hide their activities.
Oromia produces most of the coffee in Africa’s biggest grower, along with oil seeds, sesame and livestock, which are all major exports.