ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — A top opposition politician from Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group who criticized the country's state of emergency at the European Parliament has been arrested, the government announced Thursday.
The Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, have been protesting for the past year over their historical marginalization as well as corrupt local government and the confiscation of farmland for factories. At least 700 people are estimated to have died in the ongoing crackdown.
“We don’t know his whereabouts,” Beyene Petros, head of the Medrek coalition of opposition parties, which includes Gudina’s Oromo Federalist Congress, told The Washington Post. “In terms of political leadership, he has been around and operating aboveboard, peacefully.”
A statement by the Command Post, formed to manage the state of emergency, said Gudina was arrested for “communication with banned terrorist organizations” and alleged that he held discussions with Berhanu Nega, the leader of the outlawed Patriotic Ginbot 7 armed group, in Brussels.
Gudina appeared at the European Parliament with Nega and Rio Olympics marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa, who drew the world’s attention to the demands of the Oromo people when he crossed his arms in protest as he ran across the finish line in July.
Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament who helped organize the meeting, sent a letter on Thursday to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, expressing her outrage.
"It is unacceptable that Dr. Merera Gudina was detained upon arrival in Ethiopia and his arrest demonstrates the government's absolute disregard for human rights," she wrote. "A more stringent approach is necessary from the EU towards the Ethiopian government."
On Oct. 2, a protest during an Oromo cultural festival turned into a deadly stampede when police fired tear gas into the crowd. More than 50 were killed, according to the government. The opposition says the toll was 10 times as high.
The incident prompted riots around the Oromo region and attacks on foreign- and government-owned factories, farms and hotels, causing millions of dollars in damage.
A state of emergency was declared a week later. Since then, the government has said, 11,000 people have been detained.
Ethiopia is seen as a bastion of stability in an unstable Horn of Africa and a key U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism. It receives about $3 billion a year in international aid.
It has been held up as an economic model for Africa after a decade of high growth, though that has faltered this year because 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 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.
But Gudina was arrested on the same day that Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa, the head of the Command Post, held a meeting with opposition parties promising that the 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 have condemned the arrests accompanying the state of emergency, including of journalists and politicians.
"The Ethiopian government says it is open for dialogue with protesters, yet their actions demonstrate the complete opposite," said Felix Horne, senior researcher for Ethiopia at Human Rights Watch. "Merera's arrest is illustrative of the ongoing crackdown against those that express opinions independent of the government, and his arrest will likely increase anger and frustration within the Oromo community."
The Committee to Protect Journalists describes Ethiopia as the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa after Eritrea and Egypt.
In the past month, two members of the Zone 9 blogging collective were rearrested along with a newspaper editor. The Zone 9 bloggers had originally been held for a year and a half and were released in July 2015, coinciding with the visit of President Obama.
Gudina spoke frequently with international media about the plight of the Oromo. Though hundreds of his party colleagues and most of his key deputies had been arrested, he expressed doubt that the government would 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 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."