UN rights office calls for independent inquiry following numerous deaths at an Ethiopian festival
7 October 2016 – Expressing concern at increasing unrest in several Ethiopian towns following deaths of a number of people in unclear circumstances in the country’s Bishoftu town, the United Nations human rights arm has called on protesters to exercise restraint and on security forces to conduct themselves in line with international human rights laws and standards.
“The protests have apparently been fuelled in part by a lack of trust in the authorities’ account of events, as well as wildly differing information about the death toll and the conduct of security forces,” Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told journalists at a regular press briefing at the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG).
“There is clearly a need for an independent investigation into what exactly transpired last Sunday and to ensure accountability for this and several other incidents since last November involving protests that have ended violently,” he added.
According to OHCHR, last Sunday, a number of people died after “falling in ditches or into the Arsede lake” while ostensibly fleeing security forces following a protest at the Irrecha religious festival in Bishoftu, located in the Oromia region, about 50 kilometres south-east of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. These incidents have caused increased unrest in several other towns in the region.
Furthermore, drawing attention to the cutting off access to mobile data services in parts of the country, including in Addis Ababa, the OHCHR spokesperson urged the Government to address the increasing tensions, including “by allowing independent observers to access the Oromia and Amhara regions to speak to all sides and assess the facts.”
He recalled that in August this year, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein had requested access to the regions to enable OHCHR to provide assistance in line with the African nation’s human rights obligations. “We again appeal to the Government to grant us access,” Mr. Colville underscored.
Also at the briefing, the OHCHR spokesperson expressed concern at reports of mass arrests in the Oromia and Amhara regions.
He further noted that two bloggers – Seyoum Teshoume and Natnael Feleke – the latter from the blogging collective Zone 9, were arrested this week, for reportedly “loudly discussing” the responsibility of the Government for the deaths at last Sunday’s festival in Oromia.
“We urge the Government to release those detained for exercising their rights to free expression and opinion,” said Mr. Colville, adding, “Silencing criticism will only deepen tensions.”
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