Rights organisation condemns arrests of Oromo students

Ethiopia’s human rights group on Wednesday condemned the mass arrests and physical abuse in January of hundreds of university students in the capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) said federal officers had rounded up 349 students belonging to the Oromo ethnic group before transporting them to a detention centre.

The students – members of the country’s largest ethnic group – had then been forced to march barefoot or on their knees along a gravel path for several hours, EHRCO stated. "The illegal acts committed by the government forces - entering into student dormitories, illegally arresting them and inflicting physical and psychological punishments, instead of taking suspects to a court of law - have to be condemned," it said.

The mass arrests, which took place in late January, were sparked after a disturbance erupted on the university campus. It followed a dispute between the students and the university authorities over a cultural show supported by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of four political parties in the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

The students claim that their attempt to hold the show was rebuffed, with the proposed event criticised as being politically supported. During the dispute, windows were broken and cars damaged. EHRCO says that after the trouble started, hundreds of armed federal police stormed the campus, rounding up the Oromo students.

Oromo students have in the past often complained about their treatment at the university and have held demonstrations to voice their concerns.

The US stated in its annual human rights report released last month that university students were prohibited from forming ethnically based associations. "Political activity was discouraged on university campuses," it said. The report referred to unconfirmed reports that plainclothes security officers had tried to mingle with students on the campus, and noted that Oromos suspected of sympathising with the rebel Oromo Liberation Front were often arrested.

EHRCO also criticised the university officials who, it said, had suspended the students after their detention without conducting any formal investigations. The human rights organisation is calling for the police and security forces involved in rounding up and allegedly abusing the students to be brought to book. It has also complained to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Education Minister Genet Zewdie over the incident.

Dr Butte Gotu, the vice-president of the University of Addis Ababa, said he expected the students to remain suspended for a year. "There was a lot of damage to the university," he told IRIN. "The basic assumption is that the suspended students will rejoin the university after one year."

Requested to comment on the EHRCO report, the government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, said the security forces had intervened only "after the university appealed for police to restore order and the rule of law". "People have a right to protest without breaking windows or attacking people," he said. "They [the students] chose the other way, and the only option was for the university to ask the police to restore order." Zemedkun added that he was unaware that students had been physically abused, but noted that that was not the solution to the problem.