Just two months after the Ethiopian government released key political prisoners, many have been re-arrested after gathering on the outskirts of Addis Ababa on March 25 and displaying a banned national flag.
Twelve opposition activists were arrested in total, many of whom had just been released after then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn ordered their liberation in January in order to bolster political dialogue.
According to estimates, approximately a thousand opposition activists were jailed in the country in early 2018, most of them from the Oromia and Amhara regions, which have been centers of anti-government movements for since 2016.
The protests started in January 2016 when members of the Oromo ethnic group fought against a government plan to expand Addis Ababa’s boundaries, fearing that they would be displaced. At least 140 people were killed in the clashes.
In July 2016, tens of thousand of people from the Amhara region also began large-scale anti-government demonstrations. By October 2016, nearly 700 people had been killed in the conflict between government authorities and protesters, according to estimates from the Ethiopian affiliate of Humans Rights Watch.
In response, the Ethiopian parliament unanimously passed a bill declaring a six-month state of emergency and authorized mass detentions and severely restricted rights of speech, assembly, and movement. The government imposed a nationwide curfew and limited access to social and broadcast media.
The state of emergency was lifted in August 2017, but tensions in the country have since remained high. All 547 seats in the parliament are controlled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which is dominated by members of the Tigrayan minority ethnic group. There is little representation for the Oromia ethnicity, even though it is the largest in the country.
Beyond the country’s high rate of political imprisonment, the EPRDF has failed to follow through on promises meant to bolster Ethiopia’s fragile economy. With a massive youth unemployment rate, high public debt, and significant inflation, concerns about poverty add to the already tense political atmosphere.
Among the EPRDF’s most notorious abuses are the alleged torture chambers where prominent political detainees have been kept. A Human Rights Watch report on the subject documents “serious human rights abuses, unlawful interrogation tactics, and poor detention conditions.”
These abuses, coupled with the worsening economic situation of the country, have led to continuous anti-government protests since 2016. After the state of emergency was lifted in late 2017, however, demonstrations and violence continued. Desalegn vowed to shut down the detention centers and release high-profile political detainees, all while promising crackdowns on corruption.
Despite these measures, however, unrest persisted, and to the surprise of the international community, Desalegn resigned in February. He was the first Ethiopian prime minister to do so. All of his predecessors died in power or were ousted. Parliament will pick his replacement in the coming weeks.
A second state of emergency was declared following his resignation and is still in place as of today. It requires that authorities be informed of any group gatherings before they occur and bans the display of any anti-government symbols or gestures.
The activists arrested on March 25 were accused of violating both of these restrictions, having failed to inform authorities of their intention to assemble and having displayed an outdated national flag, which is used as an anti-EPRDF symbol. They face up to a year and half in prison.