ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — A top opposition politician from Ethiopia’s restive Oromo ethnic group was arrested after he spoke out against the country’s state of emergency in front of the European Parliament, the government announced Thursday.
A colleague said police arrested Merera Gudina and three others from his home in Addis Ababa late Wednesday shortly after his return from Europe, which included a Nov. 9 speech to the European Parliament in which he said tens of thousands have been arrested under the state of emergency.
The Oromo ethnic group, the largest in the country, has been protesting for the past year over its historic marginalization as well as corrupt local government and the confiscation of farm land for factories. At least 700 people have died in the ongoing crackdown.
“We don’t know his whereabouts,” Beyene Petros, head of the Medrek coalition of opposition parties that includes Gudina’s Oromo Federalist Congress, told The Washington Post. “In terms of political leadership, he has been around and operating above board, peacefully.”
A statement by the Command Post formed to manage Ethiopia’s current state of emergency said Gudina had been arrested for “communication with banned terrorist organizations” and alleged he held discussions with Berhanu Negu, the leader of the outlawed Patriotic Ginbot 7 armed group.
Gudina appeared in front of the European Parliament with Nega as well as Rio Olympics marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa, who sensitized the world to the demands of Ethiopia’s Oromo people when he crossed his arms in protest as he ran across the finish line in July.
Ana Gomes, the E.U. parliamentarian that helped organize the meeting tweeted her outrage at the arrest, calling on Federica Mogherini, the E.U.’s foreign policy representative, to intervene: “You must urge Ethiopian PM to release Oromo leader Dr. Merera Gudina.”
She noted in a second tweet that the government had ignored previous expression of concern by the E.U. over the violence. “Ethiopia gov doesn’t care; just jailed Oromo leader Dr. Merera Gudina for speaking @EP.”
On Oct. 2, a protest during an Oromo cultural festival turned into a deadly stampede when police fired tear gas into the crowd killing more than 50, according to the government — though the opposition maintains the toll was 10 times higher.
The incident was described as a massacre and prompted riots around the Oromo region and attacks on foreign and government-owned factories, farms and hotels, doing millions of dollars of damage.
A state of emergency was declared a week later and since then the government said 11,000 people have been detained.
Ethiopia is seen as a bastion of stability in an unstable Horn of Africa and key U.S. partner in the fight against terror. It also receives around $3 billion a year in aid money from the international community.
It has been held up as an economic model for Africa after a decade of high growth, though that has faltered this year under the impact of a severe drought and the unrest.
In a briefing of foreign diplomats on Nov. 17, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the country has largely returned to calm since the emergency was declared and maintained that the economy had been unaffected.
He also said that the government understood the roots of the unrest and promised a more representative parliament — the last election in 2015 returned a legislative body with no opposition presence.
In fact the same day Gudina was arrested, Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa, the head of the Command Post, held a meeting with opposition parties promising that emergency law did not pose a threat to them. “It rather guaranteed the existence of opposition parties,” he said, according to the state-controlled Fanabc news site.
Local and international rights organizations, however, have condemned the string of arrests accompanying the state of emergency, including that of journalists and politicians.
Two members of the Zone 9 blogging collective were rearrested after the state of emergency, as well as a newspaper editor. The Zone 9 bloggers had originally been held for a year and a half until they were released in July 2015, coinciding with the visit of President Obama.
The Committee to Protect Journalists describes Ethiopia as the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa after Eritrea and Egypt.
Gudina spoke frequently with international media, including The Post, about the plight of the Oromo. While hundreds of his party members and most of his key deputies have been arrested, he expressed doubt the government would ever go so far as to detain him as well.
“I think for them, most of the leaders of the regime, they know me and it is not in their interests to detain me, it could provoke wider Oromo action,” he told The Post in an interview a year ago. “The strategy of the regime, they say is to suspend the leadership in the air, they take the middle level and the grass roots.”