Twin Cities human rights conference aims for changes a world awayby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
East African immigrants in Minnesota are hoping to air their concerns and insights to improve the plight of their people still living in Ethiopia. The conference focuses mainly on human rights violations by the government against the Oromo people. Minnesota is believed to be home to the largest concentration of Oromos in the United States. They have established a base camp of sorts to speak out against abuses in a way they can't in their homeland.
St. Paul, Minn. — University students are frequently targets for Ethiopian officials hoping to squash dissent. "Gugsa" was a foreign language student at Addis Abbaba University when he was beaten and detained by government forces. That was four years ago. He was expelled and left the country.
Gugsa's crime was participating in a peaceful demonstration opposing the prolonged detention of 10 other students.
"Students always ask questions in groups. And also students are the most highly educated from society," he said. "The government doesn't want educated people."
Gugsa wants to be identified by his nickname only, because he fears retribution against his family still living in Ethiopia. Minneapolis attorney Laura Provinzino has spent more than two years collecting the accounts of abuses suffered by Gugsa and some 60 other Oromo immigrants. Since Ethiopian leaders prohibit human rights groups, Provinzino said Minnesota, with its large number of immigrants, is fertile ground for documenting the country's human rights violations.
"What we were seeing with the Oromo population who've come to Minnesota over the last 30 years is really an incremental, systematic violation of rights that's led to oppression and suppression, that's led to a gross marginalization," she said.
Provinzino works with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. She's documented instances of abuse against Oromos in Ethiopia -- cases where people are murdered, tortured or imprisoned for speaking out against the government. Ethiopian police have fired on student public demonstrations.
In addition, Oromos sometimes have their land rights revoked, are prevented from going to school or are denied jobs. Provinzino said the abuses don't rise to the level of atrocities in some other places like Rwanda or Sudan, but such violations can be a warning sign for worse trouble down the road.
"When you have a population that you continue to suppress and continue to undermine," Provinzino said, "you do create the conditions that can lead to internal conflict, whether that is civil war or whether that leads to larger instability."
Provinzino points out that Minnesota's growing Oromo population is a direct result of the abusive government policies against them a world away.
Robsan Itana is director of the Oromo American Citizens Council, which is organizing the human rights conference. He said any time Oromos speak out, it helps their people still living in Ethiopia.
"Today as we speak there are more than 17,000 Oromos in jail, in prison, without due processing (sic)," Itana said. "That's a concern for us -- for Oromos living here. And we want to bring that to light, that the world knows there are Oromos in prison."
Oromos are linguistically and culturally distinct from other populations in Ethiopia. They are the largest tribal population, but the country's current leaders exclude them from power.
Another organizer for the Oromo American Citizens Council also asks that he be identified only by his nickname, Gamachu. He intends to return to Ethiopia in the coming weeks to organize human rights efforts. He fears for his own safety as well as the safety of people he comes in contact with.
Gamachu said Ethiopian rulers prevent Oromos from connecting with the outside world. He's encouraged that Oromos are finding their voice outside the country.
"This is the first time Oromos have lived in a foreign country in concentration," he said. "It's only here that this could happen, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We've made changes, we believe, because of that. The Oromo issues, some people have started to realize what's happened to the Oromos and thanks to the Oromos citizens in Minnesota."
Gamachu said he's very appreciative of any airing of human rights violations in Ethiopia. He says even limited exposure in this country is welcomed as great progress by the people facing the abuses at home.