503 people were arrested at the annual Thanksgiving festival of Irreecha on Oct. 2 under suspicion they were planning to incite violence during the festival.
Ethiopia News Agency quoted the Oromiya region police commissioner, Ararsa Merdasa, in saying officers seized guns and hand grenades during the arrests, according to Reuters.
The festival, in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa, is typically attended by hundreds of thousands of people. However, attendance was limited to a few thousand people due to safety and COVID-19 related concerns. According to AP News, all attendees were subjected to at least six security checks, including body searches and sniffer dogs.
“I don’t know the kind of information they have, but these security checks are too much,” a festival participant told AP News. “Added with the COVID-19, it really has ruined the festive mood.”
Multiple sources also told AP News people traveling to Addis Ababa from outside the capital were banned from even entering the city—however, officials did not confirm the ban.
Typically, the Thanksgiving festival includes many people carrying Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Federalist party flags, but there were none in sight at this year’s festival.
Although the Oromo people make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, members have continuously expressed their frustrations over marginalization and lack of representation. The current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, is the first Oromo leader in the country’s history. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, he continues to receive criticism for not doing enough for the Oromo people.
The lack of Oromo party flags is also in part due to the fact that some of the parties’ leaders are currently incarcerated for their alleged involvement in recent violent unrest.
Deadly unrest started in Ethiopia during the first week of July after a popular Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, was killed, according to the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. Hundessa was a prominent voice in anti-government protests.
According to AP News, within four days of Hundessa’s death, over 80 people were killed in violent unrest. Amnesty International also reported within 20 days of his death, at least 177 people had died and hundreds more were wounded. By the Thanksgiving festival, Ethiopia had arrested over 9,000 people in relation to the violence.
In September, Ethiopia charged prominent opposition figures with terrorism-related offenses in relation to the violence that occured.
Jawar Mohammad, a prominent opposition figure, could have faced life in prison if he was convicted of those charges—along with 23 others, according to AP News.
Mohammad’s attorney told AP News he believed the charges were unethical. The Ethiopian government denies that any arrests were made for political reasons.
“Some of the accused complained that they are being charged for their political activity,” said Attorney General Gideon Timothewos in a news conference, according to Reuters.
“They are not. They are being charged for their conduct that has resulted in the death of hundreds of citizens.”
Still, Ethiopian citizens continue to accuse the country of repression. According to Reuters, critics accused Abiy of “using similar heavy-handed tactics—such as mass arrests or the detention of political opponents—to the regime that preceded him.”
Timothewos continues to hold the position that the government did only what was necessary to stop the riots.
“We have to distinguish between peaceful, lawful political mobilisation and the kind of rhetoric, the kind of ultranationalistic militant violent political activism, that results in death and injury,” Timothewos said.
The added security measures at the Irreecha festival specifically were due in part to the fact that violence has erupted in past years. During celebrations in 2016, a clash between police and protestors in Bishoftu, a town south of the capital, caused a stampede that left more than 50 dead, according to Reuters.
“Amid a pandemic, reasonable restrictions on public gatherings may be justified,” stated Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, prior to the Thanksgiving festival. ”But with tensions already high, expressions of dissent and resistance to government directives may be expected,”
“The government should show it has learned lessons from its recent responses to demonstrations and the events of 2016 by ensuring security forces exercise restraint and allowing gatherers to celebrate safely.”