Human Rights Watch (HRW) says more than 400 people, including children, have lost their lives in anti-government protests in Ethiopia since November last year, with the Ethiopian government dismissing the claim.
The New York-based rights group made the announcement in a report published on Thursday, accusing the Ethiopian security forces of using “excessive and unnecessary lethal force” against widespread peaceful protests that have swept through Oromia, the country’s largest region, since November 2015.
The mass arrest of tens of thousands of people without charge, mistreatment in detention, and restrictions on access to information are other accusations leveled by the HRW against the Ethiopian government.
The demonstrations were sparked by a government plan to expand the municipal boundaries of the country’s capital of Addis Ababa into Oromia, a move that could result in farmers from the Oromo ethnic group being displaced and losing their land and property.
The government was forced to revoke the expansion project in January but sporadic protests have continued in the region.
The HRW report, based on more than 125 interviews with protesters, witnesses and government officials, indicated that security forces repeatedly used lethal force, including firing live ammunition, to break up many of the 500 reported protests that have occurred since November.
According to witnesses, security forces, including members of the Ethiopian federal police and the military, fired into crowds, killed people during mass roundups, and tortured detained protesters, most of whom are students under the age of 18.
This is while Getachew Reda, an Ethiopian government spokesman, dismissed the report, saying, the HRW “is very generous with numbers when it comes to Ethiopia.”
“The government feels regret that people are killed,” he said while attributing the violence on the part of security forces to what he said were agitators affiliated with opposition groups coming from neighboring countries.
Oromia, with at least 27 million people, is the largest ethnic group and the most populous of the East African country’s federal states, surrounding the capital Addis Ababa on all sides.
Tensions have been compounded by the country’s worst drought in 50 years, which was caused by subnormal rainfalls.
Being home to more than seven million chronically food-insecure people, Ethiopia has one of the largest food-insecure populations in the world.