Did Ethiopia 'spy on Oromo Dissidents' Living in the UK?

The Ethiopian government has allegedly carried out a spyware campaign targeting dissidents living abroad, including in the U.K., a report has claimed.

Canada-based research group Citizen Lab alleged that Ethiopian dissidents were targeted with emails containing "sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins".

The report further claimed that Ethiopia used a commercial spyware product manufactured by Israel-based Elbit Systems Ltd to spy on dissidents.

Those targeted included dissidents from the Oromo community, one of Ethiopia's largest ethnic groups, the U.S.-based media outlet Oromo Media Network as well as one of the researchers conducting the investigation.

Etana Habte, an Oromo activist and PhD candidate and Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS, University of London, was also targeted.

He believes the government allegedly targeted him to identify people behind protests in Ethiopia's Oromia state, which was rocked by months-long demonstrations, some of which turned deadly.

"By spying over us they mainly want to identify a wide circle of people who communicate with us on the movement at home," he told Newsweek.

"They wanted to break into our privacy, collect information from our communications with one another, because they believe the leadership of Oromo Protests communicates with us.

"The solution for Ethiopia is not in spying over political dissenters like us, it is in listening to the people and meeting their demands" Habte said.

The Ethiopian embassy in London has not responded to a request for a comment on the allegations.

Ethiopian Communications Minister Negeri Lencho declined to comment on the report, according to Reuters.

Researchers said their findings raised questions on Elbit's human rights due diligence practices.

The company said in a statement: "The intelligence and defenses agencies that purchase these products are obligated to use them in accordance with the applicable law." It added that it only sell products to defense, intelligence, national security and law enforcement agencies approved by the Israeli government.

Deadly protests explained

Oromia protests
People mourn the death of Dinka Chala who was shot by Ethiopian forces in the Yubdo Village, about 100 kilometers from Addis Ababa in the Oromia region, on December 17, 2015. Dinka Chala was accused of protesting, but his family says he was not involved. Oromia was rocked by months-long protests, some of which turned deadly. ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrations started in Oromia in late 2015, where people initially protested over government plans to expand the territory of the capital Addis Ababa, with farmers raising concerns that increasing the size of the city would lead to forced evictions and loss of farming land.

The government later scrapped the plans, but protests continued. Oromo people argued for a greater inclusion in the political process and the release of political prisoners.

The protests, labelled as the biggest anti-government unrest the country has witnessed in recent history, later spread to Amhara and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR) region.

The unrest continued throughout 2016.

Last October, the government implemented a six-month-long state of emergency, which was further extended by four months in March, to tackle the unrest.

Critics of the state of emergency claimed the government was trying to quell protests by, among other things, restricting freedoms and banning certain media outlets, including the Oromia Media Network. The government denied the allegations.

Rights groups have criticizied Ethiopia for the way it handled protests, accusing the military and the police of using excessive force to quell demonstrations.

The response to the unrest resulted in the death of at least 669 people, a figure the government confirmed in a report released in April.

While the country's Human Rights Commission recommended prosecution of some police officers, it maintained that the overall response by security forces was adequate.