(Nairobi, August 28, 2012) – The Ethiopian military responded to an April 2012 attack on a large commercial farm in Gambella region with arbitrary arrests, rape, and other abuses against scores of local villagers, Human Rights Watch said today. Forced displacement, inadequate resources, and other abuses against Gambella’s population persist in the second year of the government’s “villagization” program, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 28, 2012, unidentified armed men attacked the compound of Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc., a company that has leased thousands of hectares of land for rice farming in Gambella region. The gunmen killed at least one Pakistani and four Ethiopian employees. Gambella residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that in the following days and weeks, Ethiopian soldiers went house to house looking for the gunmen in villages near the Saudi Star camp, arbitrarily arresting and beating young men and raping female relatives of suspects.
“The attack on Saudi Star was a criminal act but it does not justify reprisals against Gambella’s population,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government should put an immediate end to abuses by the military in the region and investigate and prosecute soldiers found responsible for these heinous acts, regardless of rank.”
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the Ethiopian government’s policy of “villagization” or resettlement of Gambella residents from their traditional lands to clear the way for the commercial farms. The government has used threats, intimidation, and violence against those who resist moving. Hundreds of villagers from Abobo woreda (district) fled the military operation and crossed into neighboring South Sudan in the months since the attack on Saudi Star. In June Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 recent arrivals from Gambella in South Sudan.
Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch the military’s human rights abuses against people in the vicinity of Saudi Star. The day after the Saudi Star attack, Ethiopian soldiers shot and killed four of the company’s Anuak guards, accusing them of complicity in the attack. In April and May Ethiopian security forces entered the five villages closest to the Saudi Star compound in Abobo woreda, rounded up scores of young men and detained them in military barracks in Gambella. Many alleged that they were tortured.
One former detainee told Human Rights Watch: “They said we were to go into the bush and show them where the rebels are – with whom they claimed we had a relationship. They beat me after I said I didn’t know where the rebels are. After they beat me they took me to the barracks. I was in custody for three days. At night they took me out and asked me to show them where the rebels are. I said I don’t know. So they beat me and took off their sock and put it in my mouth to stop the screams.”
Human Rights Watch heard six accounts from women and girls of rape by soldiers either in their homes or in detention, when the soldiers could not find the male relatives they were seeking.
Numerous credible sources in Gambella believe the April attack is linked to the government’s villagization program and the leases of land. The attack followed a March 12 attack by armed men on a bus in Gambella in which 19 people were killed. It is not clear whether the two incidents are linked.
The gunmen who carried out the attacks have not publicly identified themselves or their motives, but one man interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed to have been among the group who attacked the Saudi Star compound. He said that the April attack was in retaliation for the land leasing by Saudi Star and other foreign investors in Gambella region.
Most of the attackers were reportedly captured in May by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Pochalla, South Sudan following a gun battle that left four of the attackers and two SPLA soldiers dead. Tensions have remained high in Gambella since.
“The military’s abusive response to the Saudi Star attack is only making an already turbulent situation in Gambella worse,” Lefkow said. “After what the people in the region have suffered at the government’s hands, the only thing that will begin to clear the air is a comprehensive and independent inquiry into the situation.”
Villagers who recently fled Gambella to South Sudan reported new abuses by the security forces under the villagization program. They reported a persistent lack of services in the sites to which they had been moved, despite government pledges to provide them. And existing villages from where people were moved are being destroyed to prevent people from returning to their original homes.
Human Rights Watch urged the Ethiopian government to stop the arbitrary arrests, beatings, and intimidation of Gambella residents and to release those who have been arbitrarily detained. The government should investigate and prosecute military personnel and officials implicated in human rights violations associated with the villagization process, Human Rights Watch said.
Many of those forcibly displaced by the villagization program are indigenous people. Under Ethiopian and international law the Ethiopian government needs to obtain the free, informed, and prior consent of indigenous people it wishes to move and compensate them for their loss of assets and land.
“The abuses we found in the government’s relocation program in Gambella a year ago are still happening today,” Lefkow said. “Whatever the government’s rationale for ‘villagization,’ it doesn’t justify beatings and torture.”
Details about arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture; rape and sexual violence; and attacks and “villagization” in Gambella follow.