Ethiopia arrests ex-Somali region head over rights abuses

Police in Ethiopia arrested the former president of the volatile eastern Somali region on charges of human rights abuses after a series of deadly clashes earlier this month. 

Monday’s arrest of Abdi Mohamed Omar, who was forced to resign earlier this month, came days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said he would face charges following fighting in the regional capital, Jijiga, and nearby towns. 

“Abdi was arrested for allegedly being behind the human rights violations as well as the ethnic and religious clashes that have happened in the Ethiopian Somali region,” Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) said, citing the attorney general.

Television images showed Abdi being led out of his villa in a posh neighbourhood in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and into an SUV.

Five Kalashnikov assault weapons and four pistols were discovered inside Abdi’s house, the state broadcaster reported. 

Abdi’s arrest and dismissal follow recent unrest in the region, which has left at least 20 people, including five priests, dead and forced thousands to flee Jijiga, as mobs looted properties owned by ethnic minorities and torched several Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

In his statement, the attorney general accused Abdi of “stoking disputes along ethnic and religious lines”, adding other officials were also sought by police.

‘Shameful’ scenes

Somali region is Ethiopia’s second largest but also one of its most unstable. Rights groups have repeatedly accused Abdi’s government of using its Liyu police force to carry out abuses.

The government fired senior regional prison officials last month over accusations of torture.

On Saturday, Abiy, Ethiopia’s 42-year-old reformist leader, told reporters measures will be taken against former officials of the Somali region, including Abdi. 

“What happened in the Somali region compares to a scene out of a movie or a fiction book,” Abiy said, describing last month’s prison torture cases.

“As such, prisoners were held inside prison cells along with animals like hyenas, lions and tigers for intimidation purposes.”

He added: “People were raped, looting was rampant, and people were killed. What happened there was shameful.”

In a July report, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Abdi of running a secret jail where suspected members of a separatist group were tortured.

“Hopefully, today’s arrest of Abdi is a start to justice for victims of serious crimes in Ethiopia’s Somali region,” said Maria Burnett, associate director for HRW’s Africa division. 

The Somali region has been plagued by violence for the last three decades, in which the government fought the secessionist Ogaden National Liberation Front before the group declared a unilateral ceasefire this month in the wake of reforms.

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