Updated 5:47 PM ET, Mon November 8, 2021
(CNN) Witnesses say Tigrayans are being arrested in Addis Ababa in a wave of alleged ethnic targeting by authorities, after a year-long conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The detentions follow a dramatic escalation in the war last week, when the federal government declared a state of emergency and rebel forces allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that once dominated Ethiopia, vowed to oust Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission (EHRC) said on Monday that authorities appeared to be arresting people “based on ethnicity” under the state of emergency, which gives them the power to detain “people suspected of collaborating with terrorist groups on reasonable grounds.” The EHRC demanded that law enforcement “protect human rights and adhere to principles of legitimacy, reasonableness, proportionalism, and impartiality.”
Several Tigrayans living in the capital said police would not explain why they had arrested their family members and neighbors, including a young mother and an elderly priest. They asked that CNN change their names due to safety concerns.
Rahel, 22, said that her relative Nebiyat, a young mother, was arrested along with 11 other people at her office, a company owned by an ethnic Tigrayan.
“She hasn’t seen her 2-year-old baby in a week,” Rahel said, adding that she went to visit Nebiyat at the police station where she’s being held.
Relatives were allowed to bring her child, who is still breast-feeding, into the station once, but were denied access after that, Rahel’s brother-in-law, Gebremeskel, told CNN.
Rahel said she also witnessed the arrest of her older brother, Teklay, 24, and her cousin, Alem, 31, last Saturday evening. She told CNN that the police searched the house for 2 hours. “They kept saying you are hiding a gun in the house,” she recalled, but insists there was no weapon at the property. When the police could not find a gun, they arrested Teklay and Alem and took them to a police station in Addis Ababa.
Rahel said no reason was given for their arrest.
The description tallies with what EHRC described as “people being arrested from their workplaces, homes and on the streets” and “being held at various city police stations” in Addis Ababa.
In response to CNN’s request for comment on the allegations, Addis Ababa police commander Fasika Fenta said that the police were only arresting “those who receive money and training from the TPLF.” Regarding Nebiyat and her child, Fasika said he was not aware of the incident and would look into it.
Another Addis resident, Tsigereda, who asked that CNN only use her first name, said police took her father, a 70-year-old priest, three days ago. He was released soon after he got to the police station. “They came and searched the house but didn’t find anything,” she said. “Then they took him, they said a police commissioner had a few questions for him.”
She added that the arrests of ethnic Tigrayans “had become a common thing,” and were no longer a surprise to the community.
Fasika said that some religious leaders had worked with the TPLF. “It doesn’t matter if he’s a priest or a Muslim religious leader, that’s not the criteria we use,” he added.
Speaking to CNN last week, Fasika said police had been arresting people whom they had reason to believe were working with the TPLF. Fighters loyal to the TPLF have been battling Ethiopia’s military since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an offensive in Tigray in November of last year.
Fasika denied on Friday that the police were targeting people because of their ethnicity, saying they were TPLF agents who had been paid and had been given weapons.
But he conceded that most of the people being detained were ethnic Tigrayans, while saying people of other ethnicities had also been taken into custody. He said he did not have exact numbers of people who had been detained.
CNN is seeking response from the Ethiopian government to the accusation from the commission.
Amnesty International leveled similar accusations against Ethiopia in July, saying then: “Police in Addis Ababa have arbitrarily arrested and detained dozens of Tigrayans without due process … The arrests appear to be ethnically motivated, with former detainees, witnesses and lawyers describing how police checked identity documents before arresting people and taking them to detention centers.”