Call for release of Ethiopians arrested after their relatives protested in Australia

Melbourne rally against Somali regional state president’s visit to Canberra was allegedly filmed by government supporters

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Human Rights Watch has called for the immediate release of more than a dozen people who were arrested in Ethiopia’s Somali regional state after their Australian-based relatives attended an anti-government protest in Melbourne.

In June authorities began arresting at least 32 people within hours of a protest held by their family members against the visit of a government delegation.

Human Rights Watch said about half the group has since been released – mostly elderly members of the cohort – but many others have disappeared.

“Some are incommunicado, some have disappeared and haven’t been heard from at all since they were picked up by the authorities,” the organisation’s director, Elaine Pearson, told Guardian Australia.

The June rally had a particular focus on Abdi Mohamoud Omar, also known as Abdi Iley, the president of the Somali regional state since 2010, who has been implicated in numerous human rights atrocities.

The Liyu paramilitary police who report to him have been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and violence against opposition-supporting civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

Those arrested, including elderly people in their 70s and 80s, were apparently identified after attendees were allegedly filmed by government supporters at the rally. There is quite stringent monitoring of social media,” Pearson said.

“We also know there were pro-government supporters taking photos with their phones of the protesters. In this state it’s not that difficult to track down family members. Here [in Australia] the community is quite small.”

Several protesters claimed they had since been confronted by government supporters and urged to make a video expressing support for Abdi in return for their relatives’ safety.

“It sounds astounding to think they would go to such extreme measures against relatives of protesters for something that happened in Melbourne but we have seen these tactics employed regularly by the Ethiopian government,” Pearson said.

Shukri, who said he was tortured and jailed by Abdi’s forces and who fled the region as a refugee before emigrating to Australia, claimed pro-government members of the protest crowd had recognised him and threatened him.

“After the protest ended I got a phone call from one of my relatives who told me that my mother, who is over 70, and three of my brothers had been taken away in different parts of the country,” he told Guardian Australia.

“My mother was in a different city but on the same day they were all taken away by security services.”

Shukri, who is now an Australian citizen, said his mother and sister had been released after about a month in prison.

“But my three brothers, I don’t know where they are or if they are alive or dead. Nobody has seen them.”

He said his mother and sister now fear every knock on the door. “My mother, an elderly woman over 70, she never committed a crime. She lives in fear. She does not feel that she’s safe. She believes that one day sooner than later, the Liyu command will come and take her away again.”

Shukri said he wanted the Australian government to use its international influence to get his family members and the others released, and to investigate pro-government monitoring of dissenters within Australia.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Guardian Australia it was aware of the arrest allegations. “The government has made representations to the Ethiopian government regarding these allegations, which we take seriously,” she said.

Shukri said he didn’t know what might happen as a result of him speaking out, but “the damage has already been done”.

“My brothers are already missing,” he said. “I don’t know if they are alive or dead. Nothing worse could happen. Silence won’t help.”

The Ethiopian regional delegation met with Australian government officials in Canberra. Human Rights Watch has questioned the government’s vetting processes that allowed Abdi to enter the country.

The foreign affairs department told the organisation all non-citizens seeking to enter Australia were assessed against public interest criteria, “including foreign policy interest, national security and character requirements in accordance with relevant legislation”.

“This includes foreign officials with potential character concerns or subject to allegations of human rights abuses.”

– The Guardian

Date Published: Tuesday 8 November 2016

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