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10 June 2024

Concern at increasing crackdown on civil society in Ethiopia following threats against the Ethiopian Human Rights Council Organization (EHRCO)

On 23 May 2024, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council Organization’s (EHRCO) branch office in Addis Ababa was visited by government security officials in search of information. Two EHRCO’s employees were threatened through the process. Front Line Defenders believe these threats and surveillance are attacks aimed at silencing the legitimate human rights work carried out by EHRCO.

EHRCO is a registered non-profit, independent, and non-partisan local human rights organization. Through their work, they envision the respect of human rights, the establishment of a robust democratic system and the realization of the rule of the law in Ethiopia. EHRCO is primarily responsible for monitoring, investigating, reporting, and documenting human rights violations in the country. Through its detailed reports, EHRCO continues to push for justice and compensation for victims, legal accountability for perpetrators, the abolition of the culture of impunity, and the adoption of policy and law enforcement changes in Ethiopia. EHRCO emphasizes the necessity of learning from previous rights violations in order to create a more just and accountable future in Ethiopia. EHRCO’s monitoring efforts include visiting legal detainees, internally displaced persons, and individuals in police custody to closely follow their human rights protection. It also monitors the fairness and legality of trial proceedings and investigates the content and implementation of various national laws and policies from the perspective of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Additionally, EHRCO provides free legal aid to victims of human rights violations and monitors national, local, and complementary elections, as well as public referendums. EHRCO is facing serious security surveillance by government officials and has faced substantial threats and intimidation as a reprisal for its human rights work, inclunding threats, arrests, restricted access to information, criminalization and defamation campaigns.

On 23 May 2024, EHRCO’s branch office in Addis Ababa, located at Lideta Sub City, was visited by government security officials in search of information, who threatened two of EHRCO’s employees in the process. The government officials identified themselves as representatives of the National Security Office. Since the visit, the two staff from EHRCO have been receiving several intimidating phone calls. This is only the last attacks amidst a series of incidents and reprisals faced by the organisation.

In the afternoon of 13 April 2024, a head employee of EHRCO realized he was under surveillance by government security personnel, who were following him in a vehicle around Riche, a sub-city in Kirkos. Photographs of him were taken, and he received multiple threatening phone calls following this incident. A week before, in the late night of 06 April 2024, two plainclothes individuals, who were also identified as government security personnel, went to the residence of human rights defender Dan Yirga, Executive Director of EHRCO. They issued direct threats, warning him “to cease his human rights activities or face consequences.” He had faced similar intimidation on 18 March 2024.

The attacks against EHRCO’ staff members have been escalating since 2023. In November 2023, a staff member from the North Ethiopia Region office, located in Bahir Dar City, was physically assaulted near his house by three armed men wearing government security uniforms. The attack occurred early in the evening, after he had completed an investigation into human rights violations following the conflict in the Amhara Region. During the attack, the three armed men surrounded him and fired their weapons. Unable to defend himself, he was struck on the head and lost consciousness. The assailants confiscated his mobile phone, a flash drive containing approximately 10 pages of investigation report documents, as well as his organisational membership and employment ID for EHRCO.

The Organization has also faced judicial harassment and arbitrary arrests. In May 2023, the Addis Ababa City Administration Communication Office submitted a letter to the Addis Ababa Justice Bureau to file a complaint against EHRCO on the basis that the human rights organisation was inciting conflict among people and turning the people against the government. This was following a report prepared by EHRCO, in connection with house demolitions and forced evictions in the Addis Ababa City Administration, Sheger City Administration of the Oromia Region, and Adama City. Previously, in March 2023, two members of the South Ethiopia Regional Office of EHRCO were repeatedly abused and arbitrarily arrested by the government without appearing before a court of law. In February 2023, EHRCO's Monitoring, Investigation, Documenting, and Reporting (MIDR) Department office was broken into, during which a laptop was selectively taken from the Department Head’s drawer. Following the incident report, one female and two male staff of EHRCO were arbitrarily detained on March 27, 2023, at the Kirkos Sub-district Legehar Area Police Station. They were brought to court on March 28, 2023, and subsequently released on bail.

On 05 January 2023, four EHRCO staff members were arrested by the Oromia Police, after being sent to investigate a petition submitted by individuals whose houses were demolished during the demolition and eviction activities in the newly established Sheger City Administration, around Addis Ababa. After eight days of detention, they were released on bail on 13 January 2023, due to pressure from various national and international human rights institutions. However, at a public workshop organised in Adama City from the 25th to 27th of April 2023, officials from the Oromia Police and Justice Bureau stated that they had not closed the case against these four EHRCO staff. They added that they will closely monitor the case and could at any time re-arrest these human rights defenders. They also argue that the EHRCO does not have the mandate to carry out human rights investigations in the Region, despite the fact that EHRCO is a legally registered human rights organisation which has been operating for the past 32 years.

Front Line Defenders expresses its deep concern at the increasing crackdown on civil society in Ethiopia. Front Line Defenders strongly condemn the intimidation, harassment, threats, surveillance and arbitrary detention that the above mentioned human rights organisations staff members have been subjected to, which it believes is intended to hinder their valuable and peaceful work in defence of human rights in Ethiopia.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Ethiopia to take the necessary measures to guarantee the security and protection of all staff members of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council Organisation (EHRCO). Front Line Defenders reminds the relevant authorities that all human rights defenders in Ethiopia should be able to freely and safely carry out their important human rights work without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions, including judicial harassment.