It has been nine days since prominent Ethiopian opposition leader Bekele Gerba and several other senior members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) went on a hunger strike to protest their treatment in detention. Bekele, who is the deputy chairman of the OFC, and his colleagues are currently being held in Kilinto prison near Addis Ababa on terrorism charges. Their health has reportedly deteriorated significantly in recent days.
Bekele and his associates were detained on December 23, 2015 and later charged under Ethiopia’s terrorism law for allegedly belonging to the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) – a charge that is regularly used to silence ethnic Oromos who are critical of the government. They were first taken to the notorious Maekalawi prison, where torture and other ill-treatment are routine. Since moving to Kilinto, Bekele and his colleagues have repeatedly petitioned the courts to investigate their mistreatment in detention, to allow their families visiting rights, and to provide them with proper medication.
Bekele is a staunch advocate of non-violence and is one of tens of thousands who were detained during the mostly peaceful protests that have swept through Oromia since November. Many of those who have since been released reported being tortured in custody.
Since the protests began, the security forces have killed over 400 people, most of them students. Yet, there has been no meaningful investigation into the killings and no effort to hold security forces accountable. Instead, the state-affiliated Human Rights Commission in an oral report to parliament in June concluded that the level of force used by security forces was proportionate to the risk the forces faced, sending an ominous message to Ethiopians that security force members can shoot unarmed protesters with impunity.
As it is clear that the Ethiopian government is either not willing or not able to conduct a credible investigation into the conduct of its security forces, there is increasing need for international involvement in any investigation.
Unfortunately, the authorities’ failure to treat Bekele and his colleagues with the most basic respect for their rights is indicative of a government that shows little willingness to right the wrongs it has committed. Their continued detention sends a message to young Ethiopians that the government equates peaceful protest with terrorism, putting Ethiopia on a dangerous trajectory.