NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia has swept up thousands of ethnic Tigrayans into detention centers across the country on accusations that they are traitors, often holding them for months and without charges, the AP has found.
The detentions, mainly but not exclusively of military personnel, are an apparent attempt to purge state institutions of the Tigrayans who once dominated them, as the government enters its sixth month of fighting in the Tigray region. Detainees, families and visitors spoke of hundreds or more than 1,000 people in at least nine individual locations, including military bases and an agricultural college.
The government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed acknowledges that it has locked up a small number of high-level Tigrayan military officials. But the AP is reporting for the first time that the detentions are far more sweeping in scope, sometimes with ethnic profiling as the sole reason.
A military detainee told the AP he is held with more than 400 other Tigrayans, and lawyers are not allowed to contact them. The AP is not using his name for his safety but has seen his ID.
“They can do what they want,” he said on a smuggled phone. “They might kill us….We are in their hands, and we have no choice but to pray.”
This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Many of the military personnel were not combatants but held jobs such as teachers, nurses and office workers, according to interviews with 15 detainees and relatives, along with a lawyer and a camp visitor. Employees of state-owned companies also have been held, along with priests. The arbitrary locking up of non-combatants is against international law, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has met detainees’ family members but declined to answer questions.
Conditions vary, but some detainees are given one meal a day and crowded dozens to a room at a time when COVID-19 infections are rapidly rising. Families worry that needed medications are withheld. Detainees did not directly witness beatings but asked not to be identified out of fear for their lives.
The Tigrayans often end up in Ethiopia’s opaque military justice system. Detainees say they feel helpless, their fate in the hands of people who accuse them of treason.
One Tigrayan in the United States said she could understand war between soldiers but objected to the detention of cousins with non-combat roles in communications and peacekeeping.
“Is the danger in their blood? In their DNA?” she asked.
The mass detentions are an extension of the war in the Tigray region marked by massacres, expulsions and forced starvation, which witnesses call a systematic effort to destroy the Tigrayan minority of more than 6 million. The detentions are striking because Abiy was once praised for releasing thousands of political prisoners after taking power.
Tigray leaders were prominent in Ethiopia’s repressive government for nearly three decades and were accused of fostering sometimes deadly ethnic politics, but they got sidelined when Abiy took office in 2018. After national elections were delayed last year, they held their own vote and called Abiy’s government illegitimate. Ethiopia then accused Tigray fighters of attacking a military base and launched a war that has killed thousands.
Ethiopia is “only after the top leadership” of Tigray’s former rulers, the minister for public diplomacy at the embassy in Britain, Mekonnen Amare, told the AP. “So there is no such thing as mass detention.”
But in a leaked video posted online and verified by the AP, a military official said of Tigrayans, “We had to clean out our insides. … Even if there may be good people among them, we can’t differentiate the good from the bad.” Now the security forces were “completely Ethiopian,” Brig. Gen. Tesfaye Ayalew said.
Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office and a military spokesman did not respond to questions.
Another Tigrayan who spoke from custody, his voice hushed on a smuggled phone, said he is held without charges along with more than 30 pilots, technicians and other military personnel.
“If peace comes, maybe they’ll release us,” he said. “If not, we don’t have any future.” Then he hurriedly ended the call.
One detainee who escaped a center in Mirab Abaya estimated more than 1,500 people were held there. A man who visited two other centers said detainees counted 110 people in one and 270 in the other. They told him they were not allowed to speak in groups or have family visits or phone calls, and they didn’t get enough food.
“The area is very hot, extremely hot…..they don’t look good,” he said.
One detainee had been serving outside Ethiopia on a peacekeeping mission but was called home and seized, his son said. He was freed on bail but sent to a military camp, accused of creating instability.
The transfer of people into the military system after being released on bail in the federal courts is illegal, said a lawyer, Tadele Gebremedhin, who has worked on more than 75 cases involving detained Tigrayans.
Civilians have been held, too. One employee with state-owned Ethiopian Airlines said he fled the country after being released on bail. Dozens of Tigrayan priests and deacons were detained in the capital, according to Lisanewerk Desta, who leads the library and museum department of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church.
The United Nations human rights office did not have reliable estimates of Tigrayans arbitrarily detained “given the lack of transparency.” The government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has said the denial of fair trials, family visits and medical treatment is “still rife” at several detention centers.
The risk for Ethiopia is that the detentions could turn Tigrayans who once swore their loyalty into active opponents.
“Before, I didn’t plan to fight on the side of Tigray,” said Teklebrhan Weldeselassie, an air force pilot who escaped house arrest and fled Ethiopia but said colleagues are among some 1,000 Tigrayans detained near the air force headquarters in Debre Zeit. “At this time, if I get a chance, yeah, of course I would defend my people.”
Andrew Drake in London contributed.