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A report from a local civil society organization reveals that more than 150 ethnic Tigrayan former personnel of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) are scattered in detention among 16 federal military camps and prisons, where they have been held unlawfully since the beginning of the northern war in November 2020.

Some of the 154 people held in detention are veterans who have served the ENDF for decades, according to the Human Rights First report released this week.

The report argues they were targeted based on their ethnicity during the political tensions that came with the northern Ethiopia war, and that they have yet to be released despite the war ending a year and a half ago. Many of the detainees were accused of aiding or supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was labeled a terrorist organization by Parliament.

They are being held in military and other facilities in Hawassa, Addis Ababa, Enjebara, Debre Tabor, Debre Markos, Bahir Dar, and Asossa, among others, according to documents obtained by The Reporter. Almost half are being held in Hawassa, while 29 are housed in the capital’s Kality Prison.

“Among the 154 detainees, 37 of them are placed in eight places within the Amhara region where there is currently high security risk,” reads the report. “The detainees are worried over the fate of their wellbeing as the regional state is in a war.”

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One former soldier who lived through the ordeal was vindicated by the justice system but he is still imprisoned, Tesfalem Berhe, director at Human Rights First, told The Reporter.

The organization says the detainees are being processed in military courts where legal procedures are withheld, they are granted inadequate time to prepare their defense, and routinely denied access to legal counsel. This has resulted in some being sentenced to life in prison, and others to death. The death sentences are later reduced to life in prison, according to the report.

“We gathered the information from the prisoners themselves, their families and other sources. It shows that some are not provided with the necessary documents, or copies of the verdict that would enable them to appeal,” Tesfalem said.

The civil society had presented three separate cases of soldiers trapped in the prisons.

One of the cases reveals that a soldier was detained because he allegedly, close to a decade ago, insulted a gathering of Amhara regional officials. A former colonel was arrested for allegedly carrying a weapon in his office, refusing to offer a raise of stature for officers, and refusing to allow his subordinates to take legally protected time off duty. He was also accused of ordering ethnic Tigrayans to return to Tigray and endangering the constitution.

The colonel, who faced five separate charges, is currently serving a 20-year prison term. Many in similar situations face death sentences which are later changed to life imprisonment terms, according to the report.

One who used to work for the ENDF human resources department was imprisoned allegedly because he had guaranteed annual leave only for ethnic Tigrayans and had refused others.

“In general, the cases presented against ethnic Tigrayan former ENDF soldiers are widely unlawful, have no legal grounds, and are mostly motivated by former political indifferences rather than the law,” the Human Rights First report states.

The organization offers recommendations to remedy the situation at hand.

“By order of Parliament, the TPLF is now off the terrorist list; and the government is working to resolve issues that had emanated from political motivations. All laws and procedures of the country should be applied and prisoners either with pending cases or those who had been ruled over should all be released,” reads the report. “Most of the detainees are accused of issues related to the TPLF. The government and TPLF agreed to normalize everything. The detainees need to be released under the peace agreement.”

Last month, the Tigray Interim Administration announced it had released over 100 former ENDF members who had been captured and detained in Tigray during the war. The administration also requested the federal government to reciprocate. However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has stated there are no Tigrayans under federal custody in relation to the northern war, “unless they were detained for other crimes.”

Tesfalem’s team wants to see the Office of the Prime Minister, ENDF, Ministry of Justice and Tigray Interim Administration work in collaboration to provide a solution for the prisoners, who never participated in military engagement as they were all arrested within the first few days of the conflict.

The report also calls for all international actors who have been following up the implementation of the Pretoria peace deal, and other humanitarians and right groups, to apply pressure on the government for the liberation of the unjustly imprisoned former soldiers.

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