CAIRO - Amid reports of torture and mistreatment, a leading human rights group has called on the Ethiopian government to release Muslims detained during protests against interference in their religious affairs.
The Ethiopian government should address the grievances of its Muslim community through dialogue, not violence, Ben Rawlence, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement obtained by OnIslam.net on Wednesday, August 14.
The security forces should be upholding the law, not breaking it.
Ethiopian Muslims took to the streets over the past months to protest government interference in their religious affairs.
In response, security forces launched crackdown campaigns to stop the protests, arresting hundreds of Muslims.
Though many have been released, at least 17 prominent Muslim leaders are still being kept in detention without charge.
"The Ethiopian government should immediately release 17 prominent Muslim leaders arrested as part of a brutal crackdown on peaceful Muslim protesters in Addis Ababa," the HRW said.
Muslims say the government is spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
The government of Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi has put the Ahbash in charge of the religious affairs of Ethiopia's Muslims.
Muslims say the government move is in violation of the constitution, which prevents the government interference in religious affairs.
Muslims also accuse the Ahbash of launching an "indoctrination program" in predominantly Muslim areas, forcing people to attend "religious training" camps or risk police interrogation and possible arrest.
Founded by Ethiopian-Lebanese scholar Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, Ahbash is seen by the West as a "friendly alternative" to Wahabi ideology, which the West sees as extreme and militant.
Muslims say Ahbash imams are being brought over from Lebanon to fill the Majlis and teach Ethiopians that Wahabis are non-Muslims.
Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia's population.
The rights group accused the Ethiopian government of mistreating the detained Muslim protestors.
They have had no access to legal counsel or, in several cases, their relatives, the New York-based group said.
Their lack of access to lawyers while detained in a prison known for torture heightens concerns about their safety.
The government, however, insists that the protestors are being held for carrying out acts of terrorism.
"There is no crackdown. There are people who are legally apprehended, legally pursued, and this is within the legal bounds, the constitutional bounds, of the government," government spokesman Bereket Simon told AFP.
But HRW said that Addis Ababa was using anti-terror laws to suppress Muslims.
The arrest of 17 prominent Muslims for exercising their basic rights to free speech is just the latest misuse of Ethiopia's laws, and notably its anti-terrorism law, Rawlence said.
All those held should be immediately released unless the government can promptly produce credible evidence of unlawful activity.In the hands of the Ethiopian government, the anti-terrorism law is becoming a multi-purpose tool used against any kind of dissent, Rawlence said.