Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ MICHEL EULER
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ MICHEL EULER

Addis Ababa — Ethiopia is using June’s assassination of high-ranking officials as a pretext to arrest critics with no apparent links to the attacks, international and domestic rights activists say.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office in 2018, has been praised for releasing political prisoners and embarking on sweeping reforms to loosen controls in long-authoritarian Ethiopia.

But activists fear after the killings, his government’s crackdown on journalists, critics and opposition supporters represents a return to repressive tactics used by past governments to stifle dissent.

“They’re resorting to violence,” journalist and former political prisoner Eskinder Nega told a press conference in the capital Addis Ababa. “They’re resorting to strong-arm tactics.”

Five officials, including the national army chief and the president of the northern Amhara region, were killed in the June 22 attacks which the government has described as a regional coup attempt.

Officials said the following week more than 250 “suspects” had been arrested in connection with the killings.

But Nega said on Wednesday that “close to 1,000” had been arrested and most were peaceful critics of Abiy’s government. AFP was unable to independently verify this claim.

“We have prisoners of conscience now,” he said. “The world should recognise that people are being locked up right now as political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and the world should give us their support.”

A government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nega’s press conference was disrupted by half a dozen young men brandishing Ethiopian flags who called him a liar and accused him of stoking tensions among ethnic groups. But Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle also said that the total number of those arrested was higher than the government has reported.

“The government is affirming that it has arrested 250 related to the coup, but much more have been arrested for their perceived political views and activities,” Tekle said.

On Tuesday, Amnesty and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued statements warning of threats to the Ethiopian press.

Amnesty reported that two journalists had been arrested and charged under controversial antiterrorism legislation "which was used by previous governments to bring trumped-up charges against its critics".

Earlier this week, state-affiliated media quoted a defence ministry official saying that the ministry would pursue legal complaints against journalists suspected of defamation and spreading false information.

Since coming to power, Abiy has been praised for taking steps to improve the government’s dismal human rights record, including closing a detention facility known for torture. But analysts had warned authorities may revert to more repressive tactics after the killings.