The Ethiopian government should commit to a thorough, independent fact-finding mission to many years of violations of rights and violations of the laws of war in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia, according to Human Rights Watch today. This should include specific investigations into the responsibility of senior officials of the Somali region, including the former regional president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, and the current head of the paramilitary Liyu police, Abdirahman Abdillahi Burale.
On August 6, 2018, after the infamous Liyu police in the Somali region and a youth group loyal to Abdi Mohamoud Omar (known as "Abdi Illey") attacked residents and burned property, Abdi Illey resigned in Jigjiga.
"To break with the past, the Ethiopian government must provide justice for more than a decade of gruesome abuses in the Somali region," said Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa, director of Human Rights Watch. "The reform agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should include that those responsible for serious human rights violations, however powerful, no longer avoid justice."
The Somali region, a strategically important border area between Somalia and Ethiopia, has been the location of more than a decade of widespread abuses against civilians, both by the Ethiopian army and by the Liyu police. Research into developments in the region has been severely limited since 2007. Access for journalists, aid organizations, human rights groups and other independent monitors is limited.
The abuses were particularly shocking since 2007, when armed conflicts between the rebellious Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ethiopia's Defense Force escalated. The Ethiopian authorities created the Liyu ("special" in Amharic) police, which by 2008 had become a prominent counterinsurgency force that reported to Abdi Illey, the regional security leader at the time, who was then the regional president for eight years.
In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch found that Ethiopian security forces and the rebellious group had committed war crimes between mid-2007 and early 2008 and that the Ethiopian forces were responsible for crimes against humanity based on the patterns of executions, torture, rape and forced displacement documented. Human Rights Watch discovered that Ethiopian forces were violently displacing entire rural communities, destroying and burning dozens of villages and executing more than 150 people extensively, some publicly terrorizing the local community. Security forces have imprisoned hundreds of civilians, many of whom were tortured, beaten, raped or otherwise sexually abused.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly insisted on an independent investigation into the crimes committed during this period. In 2008, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia launched an investigation on the basis of the Human Rights Watch report, but this exercise lacked both credibility and independence and, above all, the truth about the role of the government.
A new investigation is needed and should look at the roles and responsibilities of Ethiopian military personnel who ordered or participated in attacks on civilians at the height of the conflict, according to Human Rights Watch. In addition, high-ranking military and civilian officials who knew or should have known such crimes but did not take action could be held criminally liable as a matter of assignment responsibility.
Although the army has been less active in the region in recent years, the Liyu police force, under the control of Abdi Illey, conducted a violent campaign against the insurgents against suspected ONLF sympathizers. For the past ten years, the armed forces have often been involved in extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and violence against people in the Somali region, as well as in retaliatory attacks against local communities. There is also evidence of attacks and violent clashes by the group outside communities outside the Somali region, including in the Oromia region since the end of December 2016, resulting in hundreds of deaths and significant displacements, and in neighboring Somalia.
In a July 2018 report, Human Rights Watch documented brutal torture of detainees in the central prison of the region – known as Jail Ogaden – which is largely controlled by the Liyu police. Former prisoners described endless abuse and torture, without access to adequate medical care, family, lawyers or even food. Civil servants who are credibly involved in serious violations of prisoners, irrespective of their rank, must be investigated and those responsible must be prosecuted, according to Human Rights Watch. This should include specific investigations into officials from the higher Somali region such as Abdi Illey and Abdirahman Abdillahi Burale, also known as Abdirahman Labagole.
According to international law, Ethiopia has the duty to investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes, including members of its armed forces. Anyone responsible for crimes against humanity or other serious violations of human rights should not receive amnesty.
The government has also retaliated against those who talk about abuses in the region. In 2016, in one example, the Ethiopian government arrested and arrested dozens of relatives of Ethiopians who participated in a protest in Melbourne, Australia, and held months as a punishment.
A deep, independent fact-finding mission into violations of rights and violations of the laws of war in the Somali region in eastern Ethiopia would be an important part of Abiy's ongoing reform agenda, Human Rights Watch said. The international partners of Ethiopia, who want to support the many ongoing reforms, must provide technical assistance in such an effort. To ensure the credibility of the research, the research must publish detailed findings and make use of international expertise.
"The federal government is not allowed to sweep abuses of such magnitude and nature under the carpet in the name of political expediency," Burnett said. "Now it's time for the federal government's long-standing commitment and complicity to end widespread abuses in the Somali region and to start accountability."