Protester deaths grip Ethiopia amid mass demonstrations, internet blackout

Protester deaths grip Ethiopia amid mass demonstrations, internet blackout

By Luke Vargas   
Published

The Ethiopian government embraced 'heavy-handed, but unsurprising' violence in combatting what it described as 'unauthorized' demonstrations.

UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) –  Dozens of protesters are reportedly dead at the hands of Ethiopian police after a weekend of mass demonstrations swept through the East African nation.

Many of those killed were members of the Oromo ethnic group – the largest by population size in Ethiopia – whose members allege decades of systematic mistreatment by government officials who fail to protect their interests. Media reports from the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar noted the use of live ammunition by police, resulting in at least 30 deaths in Bahir Dar and at least seven in Gondar.

That response was, “heavy-handed, but unsurprising,” said Michelle Kagari, Deputy Regional Director for East Africa at Amnesty International. “Ethiopian forces have systematically used excessive force in their mistaken attempts to silence dissenting voices.”

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa issued a statement expressing concern with the weekend violence, acknowledging that while many demonstrations “took place without authorization,” the U.S. nonetheless called on Ethiopia to respect the rights of all citizens, “including those with opposition views,” to free speech and free assembly. The embassy did not provide details on the death toll stemming from protests, but did note reports received indicating that “protesters and security officials have been injured or killed.”

Video from Saturday, August 6 shows Ethiopian security personnel using force against protesters at Mesqal Square in Addis Ababa:

 

Frustrations among the Oromo community erupted last year after the government announced plans to expand the boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into surrounding districts traditionally used by Oromo farmers.

Although the expansion plan was ultimately scrapped in January, government crackdowns on Oromo protesters reportedly left more than 140 dead and only inflamed tensions.

In an attempt to reduce the risk of violence ahead of last weekend’s protest, organizers issued a press release pledging to conduct “completely orderly” demonstrations:

“Given the tendency of the regime’s military and security force to use live ammunition to shoot at the protesters from a point blank range and cruel treatment of protestors in response to the situation, the grand rally will continue to show the utmost ethical standards in terms of ensuring orderliness, peace, and non-violence.”

Hours before Saturday’s planned protests, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told the press that the demonstrations were “unauthorized” and would be met with police officers tasked with ensuring the rule of law.

Internet blackout

A nationwide internet blackout continues to limit the ability for civil society and humanitarian groups to assess the death toll from the weekend demonstrations. The Ethiopian government owns the only Internet Service Provider in the country and has repeatedly used that control to limit or sever connectivity during times of political sensitivity.

In a recent report, the watchdog group Freedom House concluded that, “the Ethiopian government imposes nationwide, politically motivated internet blocking and filtering that tends to tighten ahead of sensitive political events.”

Source: Freedom House, 2015 Freedom of the Net Report
Source: Freedom House, 2015 Freedom of the Net Report

Earlier this year, 40 countries signed on to a non-binding U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that emphasized the importance of internet access and specifically condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.” Despite sitting on the council, Ethiopia chose not to back the resolution.

Asked if U.N. staff in Addis Ababa were affected by the weekend internet outage, spokesperson Farhan Haq said he was, “not aware that any U.N. offices were prevented from going about their work over the weekend,” but he did imply that the U.N. was monitoring the situation in Ethiopia.

“In any case, we would have concerns about any efforts to crack down on the ability of people to exercise their right to freedom of expression,” he said. “Obviously, any crackdown on the internet entails that.”

 

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