ADDIS ABABA, June 15 (AFP) — Ethiopian police on Wednesday confirmed for the first time that large numbers of detainees rounded up in a crackdown on post-election violence are being held at a military camp south of the capital.
The confirmation came after a leading human rights watchdog said the crackdown on opposition members and students had spread to at least nine cities outside Addis Ababa and that thousands of detainees were at increasing risk of abuse.
Government officials declined to comment on the report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) but said those arrested since deadly clashes killed at least 36 people in the capital last week were gradually being released.
"The government has started releasing many people who been detained and this will go on (over) the next days," said Zemetkum Tekle, an information ministry spokesman, adding that there was no official figure of those in custody.
Mulugeta Shiferaw, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Federal Police, said large numbers of detainees, including opposition members, were being held at the Zewai military base but denied allegations of mistreatment.
"They are those who are responsible for the incidents," he told AFP. "Employees, workers and members of the opposition are some of the people who are detained."
Mulugeta said a precise figure for those being held in Zewai was not available due to the constant arrival and departure of prisoners, noting that "the figures are changing daily, even every hour."
He said detainees were not being ill-treated and were being processed and released as quickly as possible, but stressed that investigations on some of those arrested took time.
The opposition has said that more than 3,600 of its supporters and activists have been arrested in the crackdown that began after protests against alleged fraud in May 15 polls led to deadly clashes during demonstrations last week.
Earlier Wednesday, HRW said it feared that thousands around the country could be tortured or otherwise ill-treated, "Given the Ethiopian security forces’ long record of detainee abuse."
"While international attention has focused on events in Addis Ababa, opposition members and students in other cities are increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrest and torture," HRW said in a statement.
It was the third highly critical report this year by HRW on Ethiopia’s human rights record.
Those held are reported to include scores of opposition party employees and at least three investigators with the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) who were probing alleged abuse of people in custody.
Ethiopian authorities have not said how many people are being held since they announced the arrest of 520 students on June 6, many of whom have now been released, but have defended their actions as necessary to preserve the peace.
EHRCO has said most of the arrests were unlawful and that detainees were being held incommunicado and without charge in violation of their constitutional rights, complaints echoed by Human Rights Watch.
HRW said some students released from the Sendafala detention facility north of Addis Ababa reported they were forced to perform a series of exhausting drills and exercises as a form of punishment while in custody.
"The international community should call on the Ethiopian government to immediately open up these detention facilities to international scrutiny," it said.
International concern about the situation in Ethiopia has grown since the clashes began on June 6 and exploded two days later when at least 35 people were killed after police opened fire on crowds during election protests.
On Tuesday, under heavy pressure from foreign donors, the government and opposition renewed earlier commitments to non-violence and the peaceful resolution of election disputes.