Written by By Staff Writer, CNN Ethiopian authorities have detained at least 120 individuals in connection with protests by the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and the country’s largest ethnic group is Oromo, The Oromo Liberation Front has said.
According to the group, police vehicles have blocked streets in the eastern town of Ambo, where some protesters have clashed with police, since Tuesday.
Speaking on Tuesday, Fanta Woldigariam, a spokeswoman for the National Human Rights Commission, warned that some activists and journalists who appear to be engaging in “ethnic cleansing” would be charged with “criminal conduct.”
Ethiopia’s government has been hit with a string of defections in recent months, but the latest group has raised the concerns of human rights organizations and activist groups.
A copy of the proposal seen by CNN includes a warning that police would not hesitate to put people “in jail” if they are found to be acting on ethnic or religious grounds in their activities.
“Should you be found guilty of any criminal or criminal-like conduct, the Ethiopian Police Force will absolutely not hesitate to arrest, detain, and/or charge you with criminal conduct, any of which can have profound social and political ramifications within the communities in which you are based,” the document says.
The document has been circulated by the Addis Ababa-based Ethiopia Democracy and Human Rights Network, according to an alert posted on the group’s website.
Ethiopia has been the site of violent protests in recent years, with Oromo activists accusing the government of repressing their community. The Oromo community numbers around 40 million people, according to an Ethiopia government census.
The latest protests follow a series of defections from the ruling Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, including several governors, first vice-president and thousands of Oromo government workers.
The protesters, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) says, have been driven from their homes following widespread anti-government sentiment stoked by government corruption and land grabs.
A witness told CNN on Tuesday that paramilitary police had been deployed in Ambo, located roughly halfway between the capital Addis Ababa and the Oromia region’s capital, Gondar.
“The police in Ambo appear to be involved in what looks like scorched earth policy,” said Eliana Fourie, Senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“They are rounding up Oromo men for interrogation while others have been picked up in cars and trucks for humiliating slaps on the backside or being searched by intelligence agents,” she said.
“People are being accused of involvement in propaganda. This kind of harassment has a very long history, but it has never been to this scale.”
Dozens of academics and artists have also fled Ethiopia over concerns for their safety.
Earlier this year, police and security forces were accused of excessive force in responding to protests, with an unnamed analyst telling Reuters that at least 70 people were killed.
An Amnesty International spokesman said the organization had seen “no evidence that security forces are allowed to act solely on an individual basis in assessing the need to arrest or detain someone.”
The spokesman also said some protesters had been subject to torture.
“We have documented several cases of men tortured or beaten before being released,” he said.
Ethiopia’s government has reacted angrily to criticism of its handling of the protests.
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Workneh Gebeyehu dismissed what he called “misinformation, rumors and very far-fetched allegations” against the government.
As of Wednesday, Interior Minister Shimeles Kemal had not responded to requests for comment on the report.
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– Phelim Kine, CNN