ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI, July 15 (Reuters) – Ethiopian police have detained hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa since federal government forces lost control of the Tigray region’s capital on June 28, according to some of those who say they were released.
The detentions in the Ethiopian capital are the third wave of what dozens of Tigrayans, rights groups and lawyers have described as a nationwide crackdown on ethnic Tigrayans since November, when fighting erupted between the military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray, the country’s northernmost region.
City authorities in Addis Ababa say they have recently closed a number of Tigrayan-owned businesses over alleged links to the TPLF, which was designated by the government as a terrorist organization in May but had dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades until 2018.
But Addis Ababa police spokesperson Fasika Fanta said he had no information on the arrests or business closures.
Federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi said: “People might be suspected of a crime and be arrested, but no one was targeted because of ethnicity.”
Ethiopia’s attorney general has previously said there is no government policy to “purge” Tigrayan officials. He has said he cannot rule out that some innocent individuals might be swept up in arrests but that the TPLF has a big network in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia must err on the side of caution.
Officials in the prime minister’s office, the attorney general’s office and a government task force on Tigray did not respond to requests for comment on the released detainees’ reports of a wave of arrests, or on individual cases.
Tesfalem Berhe, a Tigrayan lawyer from a Tigrayan opposition party, told Reuters he knew of at least 104 Tigrayans arrested in the past two weeks in Addis Ababa and five in the eastern city of Dire Dawa.
The names were provided by colleagues, friends or family members, and most of those detained are hotel owners, merchants, aid workers, daily workers, shopkeepers or waiters, he said.
He had not spoken to the detainees directly, and said he was not representing them although he was passing the information to organisations such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
“They are not appearing before the court within (the legally mandated period of) 48 hours and we do not know their whereabouts – their family or lawyers cannot visit them,” he said.
The arrests intensified, he said, after the military withdrew from Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, and declared a unilateral ceasefire after nearly eight months of fighting.
A spokesperson for the rights commission confirmed it had received reports of detentions and was monitoring them.
Nigusu Mahari, a Tigrayan street trader, told Reuters that city police and men in civilian clothes had arrested him and 76 other Tigrayans on July 5.
“They beat us all with sticks,” Nigusu said.
Police asked if he had been sent by the TPLF, he said.
The group was taken to a military camp on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, he said, and the number of Tigrayans detained there later passed 100. He said he was held there for two days and given six pieces of bread a day.
Reuters could not independently verify Nigusu’s account.
Police and military officials did not respond to questions about Nigusu’s case and other individual accounts.
Last week, Reuters visited 10 Tigrayan-owned coffee shops, bars and restaurants in Addis Ababa that had notices posted on their doors saying they had been closed by city authorities.
A notice posted at a coffee shop in the Haya Hulet area said it had been closed for “disturbing the area.”
Another’s doors were papered shut by a notice stamped by the Peace and Security Office of Addis Ababa’s Bole district. No reason was given.
Lidia Girma, deputy head of Addis Ababa City Peace and Security department, told Reuters the government had acted against businesses connected to the TPLF.
“It wasn’t random and has nothing to do with ethnicity. It was based on investigations,” she said.
RESTAURANT WORKERS HELD
A Tigrayan resident of Addis Ababa told Reuters his family restaurant had been shut down last week, and his younger brother and their 80-year-old father arrested along with 25 employees.
They were released after two days, he said, requesting anonymity for safety reasons.
A Tigrayan woman said police came to her house in Addis Ababa before dawn on July 1, searched it, and took her to a camp in the city’s Kality district that is usually used for vagrants where she said hundreds of Tigrayans were being held.
She said they were fed only one serving of bread per day but she was not beaten or questioned.
She said she was not told why she was detained, paid 3,000 birr to a policeman and was released five days later.