Hold Abusive Officials, Security Forces Accountable
(Nairobi) – Ethiopian government forces summarily executed a 17-year-old boy in Ethiopia’s Oromia region in broad daylight, Human Rights Watch said today. The public execution of Amanuel Wondimu Kebede underscores the lack of accountability for security force abuses in the country.
On May 11, 2021, government forces apprehended and beat Amanuel in Dembi Dollo, a town in the Kellem Wellega zone of western Oromia. A video posted on social media by the town’s administration shows security forces taunting a bloodied Amanuel with a handgun tied around his neck. He was executed in public that day. In the ensuing weeks, the authorities intimidated and arbitrarily arrested other Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members.
“The Ethiopian authorities’ summary execution of a teenage boy shows astounding disregard for human life,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The callous way that security forces and local officials filmed and then publicized this horrific event demonstrates that these authorities believe they can act above the law without fear of consequences.”
Western Oromia has been the site of a three-year-long conflict between federal and regional government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that broke from the political opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF), in 2019. Afederal command post in western Oromia coordinates federal and regional security forces in the area, including Ethiopian Defense Forces, Oromia special police, Oromia regular police forces, and administrative militia forces. On May 1, Ethiopia’s parliament proscribed “Shene” – a government term for the OLA– as a terrorist organization.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 Dembi Dollo residents and reviewed several videos and photographs posted on social media, media articles, and statements by government officials relating to Amanuel’s killing.
Witnesses said that at about 8 a.m. on May 11, Oromia regional special forces, known as Liyu Hail, arrested Amanuel near his home in Dembi Dollo’s Kebele 07 neighborhood. Media accounts said that local authorities alleged that Amanuel had shot and injured a contractor, Gemechu Mengesha, in the town. Relatives said that Amanuel was 17-years-old and was still in school. Residents in Dembi Dollo were surprised that the authorities apprehended Amanuel, and described him as a grade 10 student, who worked at a church, and had always lived in the Kebele 07 neighborhood.
Two residents saw the Oromia special forces beating, punching, and kicking Amanuel. “They were using all means to beat him, with their boots, hands, with the stick and butt of the gun,” one witness said. “He was even beaten on his head. He fell to the ground. It was very shocking to see.” Residents later saw Amanuel trying to escape in the Kebele 05 neighborhood, but the soldiers shot him in the leg.
A second video that Human Rights Watch reviewed shows Amanuel being paraded down a street, visibly limping on his right side, and surrounded by security forces, including Oromia special forces and local police. Amanuel is forced to repeat: “I am a member of Abba Torbee [an armed group in Oromia and with unclear links to the OLA]. Don’t do what I did. Learn from me.”
Witnesses said a mixture of command post forces, including Oromia special forces, Oromia police, local militia, and Ethiopian defense forces then ordered vehicles to stop and rounded up residents from the local bus stop. Nearby business owners were also forced to close up shop and watch the events. Other residents joined the crowd on their own. One man watching the scene said: “They brought everyone to the center of the town and told the people if anyone tries to attack the security forces in the town, he or she would face a similar fate.”
Video corresponding with Dembi Dollo’s communication affairs Facebook post, which showed Amanuel with visible signs of beatings to the head, blood on his t-shirt, clothes torn apart, and his hands apparently tied behind his back at the town’s roundabout with a handgun hung around his neck. Blood appears visible next to Amanuel on the roundabout and the road. The video shows at least three Oromia special forces soldiers standing near him, two of whom are carrying Kalashnikov-style assault rifles. In the video, he is told to confirm his name and where he was born.
Four witnesses described how the authorities ordered Amanuel to turn his head and then shot him at least two times in full sight of residents. A photo posted on social media appears to show Amanuel lying down with his hands still tied behind his back, slumped over at the town’s roundabout.
After security forces executed Amanuel, they prevented residents from approaching the body. Security force personnel brought Amanuel’s parents, whom they had detained at a local police station that morning, to the roundabout. His mother started screaming when she saw her son’s body and Oromia special forces and local police started to beat her and Amanuel’s father in response. One witness said:
His mother was crying, shouting, requesting to be able to bury her son. She was extending her hands saying: “Maalo, maalo” [Afaan Oromo for “please, please”]. They beat her with sticks. [His] father also asked to pick up the body. He also extended his hands, trying to persuade them. The mother was beaten, she fell to the ground.
Community elders eventually negotiated with the security official in Kellem Wellega zone, who finally allowed them to retrieve Amanuel’s body for burial.
Journalists asked Tesema Wariyo, the Kellem Wellega security head, why Amanuel was not taken before a court. He replied: “Amanuel was not a suspect, but clearly an enemy, an OLF-Shene member who came from the bush.” Human Rights Watch reached out by phone to the Oromia regional police commission and the Kellem Wellega security zone head but received no response.
Since Amanuel’s killing, government authorities have intimidated and harassed Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members and friends. Oromia security forces arrested over a dozen people, including Amanuel’s father, who were gathered at the family home mourning Amanuel’s death. Other residents were warned not to visit the house anymore. While many of those arrested have since been released, Amanuel’s father remains in detention. “The case of Amanuel and his family is not unique,” one resident said. “We are getting used to these killings.”
Human rights groups and the media have reported numerous abuses by government security forces, including extrajudicial killings, summary executions of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and repeated communications’ shutdowns in western Oromia. Armed groups in the area have allegedly also abducted or killed minority community members, police officers, and government officials, and attacked aid workers and their vehicles.
International human rights and humanitarian law prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody. Ethiopia is a party to international and regional treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, that contain special protections for children.
The government’s continued failure to properly investigate security force abuses or hold those responsible to account in Oromia and elsewhere in Ethiopia has helped perpetuate a climate that facilitates such crimes, Human Rights Watch said. The Ethiopian authorities should publicly denounce extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses by Ethiopian security forces, and undertake a system-wide, structural reform of the security sector at both the regional and federal levels.
“Ethiopian authorities have shown nothing but contempt in the face of alleged atrocities instead of investigating these abhorrent acts,” Bader said. “The authorities should demonstrate they are serious about ending the abuses that have wreaked havoc on Oromia residents like Amanuel, and ensure that all those responsible, whatever their rank, face justice.”