At least 140 people have been killed in Ethiopia over the past two months in a crackdown on anti-government protests sparked by plans to expand the capital into farmland, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Friday.
“Security forces have killed at least 140 protesters and injured many more, according to activists, in what may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence,” HRW’s Felix Horne said.
The number reported by HRW is almost double the previous toll of 75 the group gave last month.
There was no immediate response from the Ethiopian government, which has previously put the death toll at five.
The protests began in November when students bristled government proposals to take over territory in several towns in the Oromia region, sparking fears that Addis Ababa was looking to grab land traditionally occupied by the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group.
“Over the past eight weeks, Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, has been hit by a wave of mass protests over the expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa,” Horne said.
“The generally peaceful protests were sparked by fears the expansion will displace ethnic Oromo farmers from their land, the latest in a long list of Oromo grievances against the government.”
On Dec. 23, police arrested Bekele Gerba, 54, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromia’s largest legally registered political party. Bekele was previously convicted in 2011 of being a member of the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), spending four years in jail.
Bekele, a foreign language professor, “was reportedly hospitalized shortly after his arrest but his whereabouts are now unknown,” HRW added. “Other senior OFC leaders have been arbitrarily arrested in recent weeks or are said to be under virtual house arrest.”
The United States, a key ally of Ethiopia, last month expressed “grave concern” over the unrest. Washington has also criticized Ethiopia’s arrest of journalists following the crackdown.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) say Fikadu Mirkana, from state-run broadcaster Oromia Radio and TV, and Getachew Shiferaw, editor of the Negere Ethiopia online newspaper, were arrested last month.
“By treating both opposition politicians and peaceful protesters with an iron fist, the government is closing off ways for Ethiopians to nonviolently express legitimate grievances,” Horne said.
“This is a dangerous trajectory that could put Ethiopia’s long-term stability at risk,” he warned.
With at least 27 million people, Oromia is the most populous of the country’s federal states and has its own language, Oromo, distinct from Ethiopia’s official Amharic language.
HRW has said the protests—and bloody crackdown—echoed protests in April and May 2014 in Oromia, when police were accused of opening fire and killing “dozens” of protestors. The government said eight people died in the 2014 unrest.
Some 200 people were killed during post-election violence in 2005.
Ethiopian security forces have killed at least 140 people taking part in mass anti-government demonstrations since November, activists say, according to US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The protests have been sparked by fears that a plan to expand the capital’s administrative control into the Oromia region will displace Oromo farmers.
HRW also called for the release of an Oromo politician arrested last month.
The government has accused Oromo protesters of links with terror groups.
Last month, officials said five people and an undisclosed number of security personnel had died in the protests.
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Prominent Oromo intellectuals “who they feel have influence over the population” have also been targeted by the government, HRW researcher Felix Horne said in a statement.
Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was arrested on 23 December, HRW said.
“He was first taken to the notorious Maekalawi prison, where torture and other ill-treatment are routine,” it said.
“The 54-year-old foreign language professor was reportedly hospitalised shortly after his arrest but his whereabouts are now unknown, raising concerns of an enforced disappearance.”
The OFC is Oromia’s largest legally registered political party, but holds no seats in parliament, the rights group said.
Two journalists were also arrested in December – it is not clear on what charges but the country criminalises any reporting considered by the authorities to be an encouragement to terrorism.
Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest region, surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa.
The government says other views are being taken into consideration for the “master plan” to integrate parts of Oromia into Addis Ababa.
BBC Africa correspondent Alistair Leithhead says demonstrations are rare in Ethiopia and the current Oromo anger over urban planning is an expression of much older complaints over a lack of political and economic inclusion.
At the last census in 2007, the Oromo made up Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, at about 25 million people out of a population at the time of nearly 74 million.