In Ethiopia, a secret committee orders killings and arrests to crush rebels

Reuters: A secretive committee of senior officials in Ethiopia’s largest and most populous region, Oromiya, has ordered extra-judicial killings and illegal detentions to crush an insurgency there, a Reuters investigation has found.

Reuters interviewed more than 30 federal and local officials, judges, lawyers and victims of abuses by authorities. The agency also reviewed documents drafted by local political and judicial authorities. These interviews and documents for the first time shed light on the workings of the Koree Nageenyaa – Security Committee in the Oromo language – which began operating in the months after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. The committee’s existence has not been previously reported.

Five current and former government officials told Reuters that the committee is at the heart of Abiy’s efforts to end a years-old insurgency by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which wants self-determination for the Oromo people and greater language and cultural rights. Oromos have long complained of political and social marginalisation. When new protests broke out in 2019, the government cracked down hard. The Koree Nageenyaa took the lead, the five officials said.

The violence in Oromiya has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Ethiopia’s government and human rights officials accuse the OLA of killing scores of civilians since 2019, a charge the group denies.

One of the five sources was willing to be identified: Milkessa Gemechu, a former member of the governing Prosperity Party’s central committee. The others, including two people who have attended meetings of the Koree Nageenyaa, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The people familiar with Koree Nageenyaa’s activities attributed dozens of killings to the committee’s orders and hundreds of arrests. Among the killings, they said, was a massacre of 14 shepherds in Oromiya in 2021 that the government has previously blamed on OLA fighters.

Reuters presented its findings to the head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Daniel Bekele. In an interview, Bekele confirmed the existence of the Koree Nageenyaa. He said its aim was to address growing security challenges in Oromiya, but it “overreached its purpose by interfering in the justice system with widespread human rights violations.”

“We documented multiple cases of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture and extortion,” Bekele said, without elaborating on specific incidents.

Ethiopia’s federal government, Prime Minister Abiy’s office and the Oromiya regional government did not respond to detailed questions for this article. Abiy has previously defended his government’s human rights record. On Feb. 6, he told parliament during routine questions: “Since we think along democratic lines, it is hard for us to even arrest anyone, let alone execute them.”

The unrest in Oromiya, home to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, is a reminder of continuing instability in the Horn of Africa nation, a patchwork of many ethnic groups. Ethiopia is scarred by conflict. A two-year civil war in the northernmost region, Tigray, killed hundreds of thousands of people until a peace deal was struck in November 2022. Fighting erupted last July in another northern region, Amhara, between the Ethiopian army and local militiamen. There the federal government has imposed a state of emergency.

Violence in Oromiya has continued even after the federal government and OLA rebels held peace talks for the first time in early 2023. Ethiopia’s government has designated the OLA a terrorist organisation – a label that the United States and United Nations have not applied to the group.

According to the current and former Ethiopian officials, the Koree Nageenyaa meets in the Oromiya regional offices of Abiy’s Prosperity Party and is headed by Abiy’s former chief of staff, Shimelis Abdisa, the president of Oromiya region. Shimelis and other committee members are ethnic Oromo. Fekadu Tessema, leader of the Prosperity Party in Oromiya, sits on the committee, as does Ararsa Merdasa, head of security for Oromiya, and half a dozen other local political and security officials, the sources said. None of these people responded to questions from Reuters.

Reuters found no evidence that Abiy attended the meetings or that he issued orders to the committee. People familiar with the matter said the committee was formed at Abiy’s instigation. Abiy was briefed on at least one occasion in early 2022 about the committee’s activities, said a person who was present. Reuters couldn’t independently verify this.

The security committee is little known beyond a tight official circle. Reuters found one reference to it in the public record: a paragraph in a 2021 report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission about abuses of the justice system. The EHRC report said the committee – known as Yedehinineti Komītē in Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic – investigated and jailed people with suspected ties to armed groups instead of allowing the justice system to take its course.

Jaal Marroo, the military leader of the OLA, told Reuters in an interview that he is aware of the Koree Nageenyaa’s existence and that high-ranking officials in Oromiya are its members. He accused the committee of ordering extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, harassment and intimidation, without citing specific examples.

The enemy within

Ethiopia has a long history of using a clandestine security apparatus to quell dissent, Ezekiel Gebissa, professor of history and African studies at Kettering University in the United States, told Reuters.

During Haile Selassie’s four-decade rule last century, the emperor created a network of spies known colloquially as the “joro tabi,” or listeners, to hunt his opponents. The communist Derg military junta that toppled Selassie in 1974 set up a vast new security system to eliminate threats to the regime.

At the turn of the century, Ethiopia got a new constitution and parliament. But this government, too, led by Meles Zenawi, grew increasingly repressive and fashioned a top-down structure of surveillance that extended to every level of society. The system was commonly known as “Amist Le And” – one-to-five – because spies were typically assigned five people to monitor.

Abiy became prime minister in 2018. According to the current and former government officials, the Koree Nageenyaa security committee was formed soon afterwards in response to youth protests in Oromiya over inequality and economic mismanagement.

“The Koree Nageenya sits down and decides that a person needs to be detained. Then they go and arrest them without warrant or investigation or due process.”
A former judge on the Oromiya supreme court

Milkessa Gemechu, the former member of the Prosperity Party’s central committee, said he first heard of the Koree Nageenyaa at a meeting of Oromo political leaders in March 2019. There Shimelis, newly appointed as president of Oromiya, announced that the Koree Nageenyaa “would direct operations against enemy elements and enemy cells,” said Milkessa. Shimelis and Abiy’s office didn’t respond to questions about the Koree Nageenyaa. Reuters couldn’t independently verify Milkessa’s account of the meeting.

Milkessa now lives in the United States. He says he left Ethiopia after receiving threats from security officials for criticising Abiy and the Prosperity Party, including over their handling of unrest in Oromiya.

From late 2019, the Koree Nageenyaa met in the Prosperity Party’s Oromiya regional headquarters in downtown Addis Ababa as often as three times a week, said the two officials who participated in some of the meetings. The building was emptied of other staff, attendees handed in their phones, and documents were collected at the end of each session, these people said.

Abiy’s father is Oromo and he owes his premiership in part to youth-led protests in Oromiya that forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Nevertheless, unrest in the region quickly loomed as a major challenge for the new prime minister.

Ever since Emperor Menelik II’s campaign of conquest at the close of the 19th Century imposed Amhara culture and language on assimilated groups, Oromos have complained of political and social marginalisation. Oromos hoped their lot would improve with Abiy, but many became disenchanted when change didn’t materialise. New protests broke out in October 2019 and the Koree Nageenyaa cracked down.

When a prominent Oromo singer, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, was killed in June 2020 in an attack the government blamed on Oromo rebels, clashes between protesters and police led to at least 200 civilian deaths and 5,000 arrests, human rights groups have said. Oromiya president Shimelis and regional Prosperity Party head Fekadu presided over a series of Skype calls with each of the 19 big cities and 21 zones of the region at this time, according to the two people who participated in some meetings of the Koree Nageenyaa. Shimelis and Fekadu ordered some protesters arrested and others killed, the two people said. According to one of these people, Shimelis told one zonal administrator to have his forces shoot protestors if the demonstrations got out of hand. The sources did not specify numbers of people to be arrested or killed.

A tribal massacre

A former adviser to Shimelis told Reuters that in “important cases, like prominent executions,” orders come from Shimelis or Ararsa, Oromiya’s police commissioner until his promotion last year to head of security. One such case, the source said, was a massacre in early December 2021 of 14 tribesmen.

The killings were reported at the time in Ethiopia, but the blame for the crime has been a matter of dispute. Reuters reviewed previously unreported official accounts of the incident and spoke to a local official who said he witnessed key moments leading up to the slaughter.

On Nov. 30, 2021, suspected OLA fighters killed 11 police officers and wounded 17 in an ambush in Fentale, a rural district of Oromiya that lies in the Great Rift Valley.

Then police commissioner Ararsa and the region’s deputy president, Awalu Abdi, arrived at the district administration’s compound the following day, the local official said. Like Ararsa, Awalu is a member of the Koree Nageenyaa, according to five sources. Also present was the then zonal administrator, Ababu Wako.

The local official recounted that Ababu received a phone call from a military commander whose troops had detained 16 suspected rebels in a forest area near the shallow waters of Lake Basaka. The commander was seeking guidance about what to do with the suspects. The local official said he was present when Ababu took the phone call and heard the discussions that followed.

Ababu consulted his more senior visitors. Ararsa and Awalu said the men should be killed, the local official said, and Ababu passed on the command: “Don’t spare anyone. Shoot them all.”

Two other sources independently corroborated this account. Both said they were briefed on the events by people who were present.

Awalu, Ararsa and Ababu did not respond to requests for comment about the killings.

A phone call

The call to local administrator Ababu had come from military commander Gizachew Mekuria, operating in the Seka Forest. As he spoke, the 16 detained Oromo men looked on, according to two surviving witnesses who say they heard Gizachew make the call.

The detained men were not OLA members, according to the survivors, other witnesses, an Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report and an investigation by the Oromiya government. They were elders from Oromiya’s pastoralist Karayyuu tribe, who were celebrating “Jila,” the arrival of a new season. The Oromiya government investigation has not been previously reported. Reuters also reviewed details of the EHRC investigation that have not been made public.

Wrapped in white traditional blankets, with a machete hanging from one hip and a shepherd’s stick from the other, the Oromo pastoralists had gathered that morning among a smattering of straw huts in the sandy village of Tututi to slaughter an ox, the witnesses said.

Around 11:30 a.m., dozens of armed men in military fatigues arrived in the village, according to five witnesses and the report by the EHRC. The fighters were members of the Oromiya regional security force and allied militiamen. Such regional forces form part of Ethiopia’s federal security apparatus. At first, the armed men assured the elders they wanted to talk, the witnesses said. The tribe’s religious leader, Kadiro Hawwas Boru, told the elders to cooperate.

But the atmosphere soon deteriorated. The soldiers rounded up the tribesmen, who were standing under the traditional black, red and white flag of the Oromo people, two of the witnesses said. The soldiers started to insult the Karayyuu and accused them of being members of “Shane,” local slang for the OLA. They went on to beat women and children and looted several houses, taking money, clothes and soap, the five witnesses said.

The soldiers then marched 38 men and a 10-year-old boy to an asphalt road nearby. There they interrogated their captives for over five hours and badly beat some of them. Gizachew led the interrogations. At one point, he slapped the Karayyuu leader Kadiro and accused him of being an OLA member, the two survivors said.

“You are dying first. You are Shane,” one of the survivors, Boru Mieso, recalled Gizachew telling Kadiro. Reuters interviewed Boru in May 2022. The second survivor corroborated Boru’s account. Gizachew did not respond to a request for comment.

After the questioning was over, the men were split into two groups: one containing 16 men, including Kadiro, and another of 23 captives. The first group was driven to the nearby Seka Forest, while the rest were taken to a jail.

When Kadiro arrived at the forest, he begged Gizachew to kill them all to end the beatings and humiliation. “Finish us, please,” he said, according to Boru and the other survivor, who asked to remain anonymous.

Gizachew then made his phone call.

Blame it on the OLA

After Gizachew received his orders, 14 of the men, Kadiro among them, were gunned down at point-blank range. The bodies were left to rot and were eaten by wild animals, according to the survivors and villagers who later recovered and buried the dead.

Boru and the second survivor said they managed to escape by scrambling into a ditch to dodge a hail of bullets.

Word of the killings spread quickly. Oromiya’s regional government blamed the OLA. Two senior Prosperity Party lawmakers from the region disputed that narrative, and in Facebook posts accused police commissioner Ararsa of being responsible. One of the lawmakers is now in jail, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, which he denies.

An investigation by the EHRC blamed security forces for the killings. It did not specify which forces or name the alleged perpetrators. Two EHRC sources familiar with the case told Reuters that local residents and witnesses said high-ranking officials gave the order to kill.

Nine local officials and police officers, including Gizachew, were arrested, but none were charged. In September 2022 they were all released, four local government officials said.

Prime Minister Abiy was briefed twice about the killings, by an official and by Karayyuu elders, according to people who were present. Reuters spoke to one person who witnessed the briefing by the official and five who attended the meeting with the tribal elders.

In early 2022, the Oromiya government launched its own investigation. The inquiry resulted in a 10-page internal report, reviewed by Reuters, that cited witnesses as saying regional government forces carried out the killings. Ararsa and Awalu were questioned by Oromiya government investigators. According to the report, they confirmed they were present in the area that day, but they denied ordering that the tribesmen be killed.

Awalu said he told the regional government’s communications office to blame the OLA. According to the report, Awalu recalled saying, “No matter who did the killing, let’s just blame it on” the OLA “and put out the statement accordingly.”

In October 2022, massacre survivor Boru was walking his cattle near the spot where the slain tribesmen are buried. Like most men of the Karayyuu, he was carrying a gun.

According to two witnesses, members of the Oromiya security forces pulled up in a pickup truck alongside Boru, confiscated his gun and then beat him.

Moments later, they shot him dead, the witnesses said. Security officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Arrests and detentions

The Koree Nageenya not only eliminates suspected enemies. It also acts preemptively to keep protesters off the streets.

In 2019, the committee started to order that people it deemed a threat to security be arrested or have their prison terms prolonged, according to half a dozen judges and prosecutors who worked on such cases.

One of the sources, an intelligence official, shared an internal document listing more than 1,006 names of men and women arrested on the committee’s orders between 2019 and March 2022. The document lists full names, gender and location of arrest.

“The Koree Nageenya sits down and decides that a person needs to be detained,” said a former judge on the Oromiya supreme court. “Then they go and arrest them without warrant or investigation or due process.”

Prisoners under the authority of the committee are referred to by the police and other security agents as “Hala Yero,” meaning those jailed because of the “current security situation,” according to a dozen prisoners, five judicial sources and the two EHRC sources. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“I was put upside down and then electrocuted on the sole of my foot, five days a week for 45 days.”

An ex-detainee who says he was subjected to torture
Their cases are handled by the police, who have repeatedly defied court orders that they be released, according to the sources. And the detainees are jailed in separate facilities – mostly military barracks and training camps – without access to family members or the courts, they said.

A 2021 report by the EHCR, based on interviews with 281 detainees across 21 police stations in Oromiya, names the Koree Nageenyaa as interfering in the legal process involving people suspected of having links to armed groups.

“Their cases were not handled by courts of law, but rather by what is called the security council,” the report said. “This security council was established under the regional administration bodies and has a mandate to investigate and decide on their cases.”

Judges and lawyers who resist interference from government officials have faced intimidation, assault, kidnapping and one attempted murder of a court president, according to an earlier May 2019 report by the Oromiya supreme court, seen by Reuters, that was shared with Oromiya’s regional president, his deputy and the police commissioner.

A supreme court judge told Reuters that two to four judges approached him each week to complain about interference in the justice system.

“I used to believe in the reform agenda of Abiy, I really wanted to be part of the transition,” the judge said. “At first I justified the behaviour of the security forces and thought it was linked to a particular moment, but at some point I realised the problem was systemic. Everyone who disagreed with the Koree Nageenyaa would be removed.”

Two gym instructors told Reuters they were detained in 2021 on suspicion of working with the OLA and subjected to a torture method known as “number eight” – a reference to how prisoners are suspended from the ceiling, with their arms bound together at the wrist and their legs bound together at the ankle. Both men deny any involvement with the OLA.

“I was put upside down and then electrocuted on the sole of my foot,” one said, showing scars from the electrodes on his feet and fingers. “Five days a week for 45 days.”

“When they torture you using this method, blood spills out of your body,” said the other. Ethiopian authorities did not respond to requests for comment about the accounts of torture.

The two men told Reuters they were released after several months in prison. Others have spent years behind bars with no prospect of freedom, their lawyers and families say.

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