ETHIOPIAN political prisoners are said to be in poor health after two weeks on hunger strike, with protesters demanding their release at the weekend.
Oromo Federal Congress (OFC) members Bekele Gerba and Jawar Mohammed are among at least 20 people facing charges of terrorism and illegal possession of firearms following unrest sparked by the murder of popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa last year.
At least 80 people were killed during the protests that followed his death as Ethiopian forces violently clamped down and swooped to arrest leading opposition figures.
Mr Gerba and Mr Mohammed started the hunger strike in January in protest at the treatment of themselves and others. Mr Mohammed is reported to have developed kidney problems as a result.
“Four of them have already collapsed and have been taken to hospital,” explained Ibsa Gemeda, one of the defendants’ lawyers.
“The others are unable to have conversations or move around. Some of them have serious underlying health issues and we are worried that this could result in their deaths.”
The Oromo, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s 112 million people, helped bring Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in April 2018.
Initial optimism at the Oromo politician’s election soon waned as his opponents and some former allies accused him of turning to authoritarianism.
This was not, however, a barrier to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a border conflict with Eritrea. Three months after taking power, Mr Abiy became the first Ethiopian leader to visit the neighbouring country since the end of a bloody war in 2000.
But since then, scores of opposition figures and journalists have been detained and independent media organisations shut down.
Last year, Mr Abiy launched a major military offensive against the northern Tigray region. There were accusations of ethnic cleansing and a humanitarian crisis developed, with aid agencies warning that 10,000 people there could starve to death.
The jailed Oromo opposition figures have been charged with inciting the violence that followed Mr Hundessa’s death, although no evidence has been presented and human rights campaigner say that the investigations have been marred by “serious due-process violations.”
“The charges against them are politically motivated. The case is motivated by the government’s desire to remove Jawar and others from the political realm and muzzle opposition in the Oromia state,” Mr Ibsa said.