Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announces a failed coup as he addresses the public on television, June 23, 2019. The failed coup in the Amhara region was led by a high-ranking military official and others within the country’s military, he said.

Ethiopia is using last month’s assassination of high-ranking officials as a pretext to arrest critics with no apparent links to the attacks, international and domestic rights activists said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office last year, has been praised for releasing political prisoners and embarking on sweeping reforms to loosen controls in long-authoritarian Ethiopia.

But activists fear after the killings, his government’s crackdown on journalists, critics and opposition supporters represents a return to repressive tactics used by past governments to stifle dissent.

“They’re resorting to violence,” journalist and former political prisoner Eskinder Nega told a press conference in the capital Addis Ababa.

“They’re resorting to strong-arm tactics.”

Five officials, including the national army chief and the president of the northern Amhara region, were killed in the June 22 attacks which the government has described to a regional coup attempt.

Officials said the following week more than 250 “suspects” had been arrested in connection with the killings.

‘Peaceful critics’

But Nega said Wednesday that “close to 1 000” had been arrested and most were peaceful critics of Abiy’s government. AFP was unable to independently verify this claim.

“We have prisoners of conscience now,” he said.

“The world should recognise that people are being locked up right now as political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and the world should give us their support.”

A government spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nega’s press conference was disrupted by half a dozen young men brandishing Ethiopian flags who called him a liar and accused him of stoking tensions among ethnic groups.

But Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle also told AFP Wednesday that the total number of those arrested was higher than the government has reported.

“The government is affirming that they’ve arrested 250 related to the coup, but much more have been arrested for their perceived political views and activities,” he said.

On Tuesday, Amnesty and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued statements warning of threats to the Ethiopian press.

Amnesty reported that two journalists had been arrested and charged under controversial anti-terrorism legislation “which was used by previous governments to bring trumped-up charges against its critics”.

Earlier this week, state-affiliated media quoted a defense ministry official saying that the ministry would pursue legal complaints against journalists suspected of defamation and spreading false information.

Since coming to power, Abiy has been praised for taking steps to improve the government’s dismal human rights record, including closing a detention facility known for torture. But analysts had warned authorities may revert to more repressive tactics after the killings.

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