(Nairobi) – An Ethiopian government-backed paramilitary force summarily executed 10 men during a March 2012 operation in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region. Detailed information on the killings and other abuses by the force known as the “Liyu police” only came to light after a Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission to neighboring Somaliland in April.

On March 16 a Liyu police member fatally shot a resident of Raqda village, in the Gashaamo district of Somali region, who was trying to protect a fellow villager. That day, men from Raqda retaliated by killing seven Liyu police members, prompting a reprisal operation by dozens of Liyu police in four villages on March 16 and 17. During this operation the Liyu police force summarily executed at least 10 men who were in their custody, killed at least 9 residents in ensuing gunfights, abducted at least 24 men, and looted dozens of shops and houses.

“The killing of several Liyu police members doesn’t justify the force’s brutal retaliation against the local population,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Liyu police abuses in Somali region show the urgent need for the Ethiopian government to rein in this lawless force.”

The Ethiopian government should hold those responsible for the killings and other abuses to account and prevent future abuses by the force.

Ethiopian authorities created the Liyu (“special” in Amharic) police in the Somali region in 2007 when an armed conflict between the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the government escalated. By 2008 the Liyu police became a prominent counterinsurgency force recruited and led by the regional security chief at that time, Abdi Mohammed Omar (known as “Abdi Illey”), who is now the president of Somali Regional State.

The Liyu police have been implicated in numerous serious abuses against civilians throughout the Somali region in the context of counterinsurgency operations. The legal status of the force is unclear, but credible sources have informed Human Rights Watch that members have received training, uniforms, arms, and salaries from the Ethiopian government via the regional authorities.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 30 victims, relatives of victims, and witnesses to the March incidents from four villages who had fled across the border to Somaliland and who gave detailed accounts of the events.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of March 16 the Liyu police returned to Raqda following the clashes with the community earlier in the day that left seven police force members dead. The next morning, March 17, the Liyu police rounded up 23 men in Raqda and put them into a truck heading towards Galka, a neighboringvillage. Along the way the Liyu police stopped the truck, ordered five randomly selected men to descend, and shot them by the roadside. “It was three police who shot them,” a detainee told Human Rights Watch. “They shot them in the forehead and shoulder: three bullets per person.”

Also on March 17, at about 6 a.m., Liyu police in two vehicles opened an assault on the nearby village of Adaada. Survivors of the attack and victims’ relatives described Liyu police members going house to house searching for firearms and dragging men from their homes. The Liyu police also started shooting in the air. Local residents with arms and the Liyu police began fighting and at least four villagers were killed. Many civilians fled the village.

After several hours the Liyu police left but later returned when villagers came back to the village to bury those killed earlier that day. Fighting resumed in the afternoon and at least another five villagers were killed. The Liyu police took another four men from their homes and summarily executed them. A woman whose brother was a veterinarian told Human Rights Watch: “They caught my brother and took him outside. They shot him in the head and then slit his throat.”

For five days Liyu police also deployed outside Langeita, another village in the district, and restricted people’s movement. The Liyu police carried out widespread looting of shops and houses in at least two of the villages, residents said.

Human Rights Watch received an unconfirmed report that following the incidents local authorities arrested three Liyu police members. However it is unclear whether the members have been charged or whether further investigations have taken place.

The Ethiopian government’s response to reports of abuses in the Somali region has been to severely restrict or control access for journalists, aid organizations, human rights groups, and other independent monitors. Ethiopia’s regional and federal government should urgently facilitate access for independent investigations of the events by independent media and human rights investigators, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary executions.

“For years the Ethiopian government has jailed and deported journalists for reporting on the Somali region,” Lefkow said. “Donor countries should call on Ethiopia to allow access to the media and rights groups so abuses can’t be hidden away.”

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