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The mysterious death of a human rights lawyer during political turmoil in Ethiopia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The civil war in northern Ethiopia has gotten most of the media attention lately. But in the south, the government has launched a huge crackdown against its political adversaries. This is the story of a human rights lawyer, his mystery death and a government fighting for its survival. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As Soraya Kadir (ph) explains it, her husband has always been a pain for the Ethiopian government.

SORAYA KADIR: (Through interpreter) He's not afraid. He argues strongly with the government about injustice in the law. He has deep knowledge of the law, and he's a headache for them.

PERALTA: Abduljebar Hussien was one of Ethiopia's most prominent human rights lawyers. No matter who was in power, when an opposition leader was unjustly detained, he took the cases that no one wanted. So when the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began rounding up politicians in his home region of Oromia, Abduljebar took on the most prominent cases. Soraya says it's also when the threats began - text messages to his phone. And one time, a lady showed up at their house.

KADIR: (Through interpreter) She warned me that he had to stop before death came to my house.

PERALTA: Abduljebar was angry that people he assumed were government agents threatened his family. Soraya heard him shout on the phone, kill me, but leave my family alone.

KADIR: (Through interpreter) He was telling me he is doing the right thing, and he was just working to defend justice and the constitution.

PERALTA: A month later, Soraya received a call from Abduljebar's cellphone. The person who called said her husband had collapsed. Soraya found his lifeless body dumped in a seedy side street. She rushed him to a hospital on a rickshaw.

KADIR: (Through interpreter) They stopped us outside. They didn't let him in, and they didn't even care.

PERALTA: Government officials told her and the Ethiopian public that he died of complications from diabetes. But this happened in August as the country was embroiled in the civil war and as the government rounded up thousands of political dissidents. Soraya knew their story did not add up.

KADIR: (Through interpreter) I never thought that death would come to my house, but it happened. And it is coming to every house. Every house is mourning. We are living in complete darkness.

PERALTA: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018, following years of protests by Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos. They felt marginalized under the authoritarian regime led by ethnic Tigrayans. Abiy, himself an Oromo, promised to respect human rights. But within a couple of years, he went to war against the Tigrayans and broke ranks with many Oromos, some of whom have joined the civil war against Abiy's government.

AWOL ALLO: I think what happened in Oromia is really tragic.

PERALTA: That is Awol Allo, a professor of law at Keele University in the U.K. He says Abiy ended up siding with factions of Ethiopia's second largest ethnic group, the Amharas, who have pushed for a more imperial premiership. As elections drew closer, Awol says that Abiy made a political calculation that in order to win, he had to sideline his political adversaries in Oromia. With opponents in jail or boycotting because of the harassment, Abiy ran essentially unopposed.

ALLO: I think fundamentally what we see with Abiy - that this is someone that is determined to use whatever tactics, whatever strategy is necessary to consolidate his power.

PERALTA: It took a few days and a few changes in meeting places before I finally meet Hamza Mohammed, a prominent Oromo activist. He's a skinny guy with a shy smile. He sinks into his seat almost as if he doesn't want to be seen. He fears he'll be snatched up at any moment.

HAMZA MOHAMMED: I can't leave to - my home. Even I can't work. I can't move in freedom.

PERALTA: Back in June, the government held him for three months, accusing him of smuggling SIM cards into the house of Abiy's top political opponent. Hamza was thrown into the infamous Maikelawi prison. Abiy's government had closed the jail, vowing to end state terrorism. But it's back in use. Hamza says he was held naked in a refrigerated cell.

MOHAMMED: Cold (unintelligible). We don't have any clothes.

PERALTA: When we asked the prime minister's office about these claims. a spokeswoman said we were simply hearing from a few malcontents. But the government's own human rights commission has documented mass indiscriminate arrests of Oromos. It found even children had been detained. Hamza says he's documented a thousand young Oromos under arrest. The worst part, he says, is that he hasn't spoken to his mother for more than a year. He doesn't want the government to trace his calls or go after his mother the way they've gone after his father.

MOHAMMED: My father is jailed over three times in Hararghe. If I post anything on Facebook, they immediately arrested my family, immediately tortured my family.

PERALTA: Hamza hated Ethiopia's previous government. He led acts of civil disobedience against it. But Abiy's Ethiopia, he says, is worse.

MOHAMMED: We're going to war. He's torturing - he's detaining everyone. So this country can't be saved.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING ON VIDEO)

PERALTA: The video is shaky, but you can see the face of Abduljebar Hussien, a human rights lawyer. The man who took the video and shared it with NPR doesn't want to be named because he fears retribution. Gutema Khalil Buru (ph), a sheikh, was on call at the hospital that day to wash the bodies of the deceased.

GUTEMA KHALIL BURU: When we washed his body, there is government and security that follow us.

PERALTA: That's why the video is shaky - they are trying to film while security agents surround the room. You see Gutema's hands in the video. You see him gingerly removing surgical material.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING ON VIDEO)

PERALTA: You see that Abduljebar's face is swollen. And then as they turn his head, you see a huge gash in the back of his head.

KHALIL BURU: There are many injuries at the back of his head. (Unintelligible) It's like a knife or something.

PERALTA: Gutema says it took him an hour and a half to wash the blood off his body.

KHALIL BURU: All of us see this person is assassinated.

PERALTA: After he said those words - assassinated - he received so many threats, he had to flee Ethiopia. Abduljebar's wife, Soraya, says as soon as she publicly doubted he died of diabetes, threats came her way, too. Her family warned her, you'll be killed. But what hurts the most, she says, is that a man who gave his life to fight for justice is likely never to get it for himself.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO Y GABRIELA'S "THE RUSSIAN MESSENGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.