Human Rights Watch said Friday that Ethiopian sources killed at least 140 people and wounded many more in what the group says “may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence.” The rights group’s new estimate is nearly twice the death toll it estimated last month.
The protesters say the government plan will lead to a loss of autonomy and marginalization for Oromo people living on the outskirts of the capital.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the release of an Oromo politician arrested last month.
The government has accused Oromo protesters of links with terror groups.
Last month, officials said five people and an undisclosed number of security personnel had died in the protests.
HRW spokesman Felix Horne said that Ethiopian forces are treating demonstrators and opposition politicians “with an iron fist,” closing off ways that the protesters can express their grievances nonviolently. He called the development “a dangerous trajectory that could put Ethiopia’s long-term stability at risk.”
Prominent Oromo intellectuals “who they feel have influence over the population” have also been targeted by the government, Felix Horne also said in a statement.
Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was arrested on 23 December, HRW said.
“He was first taken to the notorious Maekalawi prison, where torture and other ill-treatment are routine,” it said.
“The 54-year-old foreign language professor was reportedly hospitalised shortly after his arrest but his whereabouts are now unknown, raising concerns of an enforced disappearance.”
The OFC is Oromia’s largest legally registered political party, but holds no seats in parliament, the rights group said.
Two journalists were also arrested in December – it is not clear on what charges but the country criminalises any reporting considered by the authorities to be an encouragement to terrorism.
Opposition groups say the protesters are mostly students and farmers of the Oromo ethnic group, while the government describes them as “extremist Oromo groups” and “armed gangs.”
Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest region, surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa.
The government says other views are being taken into consideration for the “master plan” to integrate parts of Oromia into Addis Ababa.
BBC Africa correspondent Alistair Leithhead says demonstrations are rare in Ethiopia and the current Oromo anger over urban planning is an expression of much older complaints over a lack of political and economic inclusion.
At the last census in 2007, the Oromo made up Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, at about 25 million people out of a population at the time of nearly 74 million.