The Ethiopian government has arrested and detained dozens of relatives of Ethiopians who participated in a Melbourne protest in June, 2016, and is still holding many of them four months later, Human Rights Watch said today.
On June 12, members of Australia’s Ethiopian community who are from Somali Regional State protested the visit to Australia of an Ethiopian regional government delegation that included Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known as Abdi Iley, the president of Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State They were also protesting Australia’s support for the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian delegation did not appear, and after several hours the event was cancelled. The protesters later learned that several dozen of their relatives in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State had been arrested and detained due to their involvement in the Melbourne protest.
“Abdi Mohamoud Omar and his colleagues have added collective punishment to their long list of abuses against the people of Somali Regional State,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Australian government should raise their concerns with their Ethiopian counterparts at the highest levels.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 members of the Ethiopian Somali community in Australia between July and September 2016.They told Human Rights Watch that at least 32 family members had been arrested in Ethiopia. Some have since been released but most were still in detention, the relatives said. The Ethiopian government should immediately release the relatives of the Melbourne protesters, whose detention amounts to unlawful collective punishment of family members, Human Rights Watch said.
Ethiopian Somali protesters in Melboune expressed particular concern over Abdi Mohamoud Omar’s visit. The Liyu police, a paramilitary unit that reports directly to Abdi Mohamoud Omar, has been responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions and torture. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Human Rights Watch that Abdi Mohamoud Omar’s visa application did not raise any serious concerns. The Australian government should ensure that foreign officials implicated in serious human rights abuses do not receive visas, Human Rights Watch said.
Numerous Ethiopian Somali Australians said that pro-government supporters living in Australia regularly harass community members perceived as government opponents. Several protesters said that these supporters called or personally confronted them in the days following the arrests and pressed them to make a video pledging support for Abdi Mohamoud Omar in order to secure the release of their relatives. At least three members of Australia’s Ethiopian Somali community have done this.
One man described pleas from his family members: “If you do not record something, they will kill us.”
Threatening demands for video apologies have been a regular tactic of the Somali Regional State government, Human Rights Watch said. People from Somali Regional State who live in the United States, Canada, and northern Europe have described similar networks and tactics by pro-government supporters there. These videos are often posted to the state-run broadcaster, ESTV, and to various pro-government websites.
“I don’t feel safe here,” one Australian said. “I thought I was safe. When I came, [I thought] now I will be in a free country. To be in Australia and be scared all the time, it doesn’t go together.”
One of the recently released detainees told his relative in Australia that security personnel hit him every night. His interrogators told him: “If you want to be released, you have to talk to [your relative] about support[ing] the government. You have to talk to people and then those people will take it to the embassy.” Arbitrary detention is commonplace in Somali Regional State, and detainees describe frequent torture and other ill-treatment in the region’s many detention sites.
Australia has a strong and growing economic relationship with Ethiopia, and Australian companies are exploring opportunities in Ethiopia in mining, energy, and agriculture. In July, an Australia trade delegation from the state of Victoria visited Ethiopia.
Granting a visa to Abdi Mohamoud Omar, who previously visited Australia in 2012, raises concerns about the Australian government’s vetting process of people implicated in serious rights abuses. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is responsible for assessing visa applications and can refuse visas to people suspected of involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Given the significant evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Ethiopian forces in the country in 2007-2008 while Abdi Mohamoud Omar was the Somali Regional State head of security, his visa application should have raised serious questions, Human Rights Watch said. However, Australian government officials told Human Rights Watch that Abdi Mohamoud Omar’s visa raised no red flags.
In response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, the Australian government wrote that “all non-citizens wishing to enter Australia are assessed against relevant public interest criteria, including foreign policy interest, national security and character requirements in accordance with relevant legislation. This includes foreign officials with potential character concerns or subject to allegations of human rights abuses.”
“Ethiopia has severely cracked down down on protests at home, but has gone a cruel step further by trying to silence Ethiopians protesting abroad by punishing their family members,” Horne said. “These relatives are being wrongfully held and should immediately be released.”