(Reuters) — Dozens of university students protested in Ethiopia’s capital on Tuesday, demanding an end to police crackdowns that followed months of demonstrations over plans to requisition farmland in the country’s Oromiya region late last year.
The government wanted to develop farmland around the capital, Addis Ababa, and its plan triggered some of the worst civil unrest for a decade, with rights groups and U.S.-based dissidents saying as many as 200 people may have been killed.
Officials suggest the figure is far lower but have not given a specific number.
Ethiopia has long been one of the world’s poorest nations but has industrialized rapidly in the past decade and now boasts double-digit growth. However, reallocating land is a thorny issue for Ethiopians, many of whom are subsistence farmers.
Authorities scrapped the land scheme in January, but sporadic demonstrations persist and, on Tuesday, students from Addis Ababa University marched in two groups toward the embassy of the United States, a major donor, holding signs that read “We are not terrorists. Stop killing Oromo people.”
Such protests are rare in a country where police are feared as heavy-handed and the government is seen as repressive.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has promised to address grievances in the Oromiya region and says he blames rebel groups for stoking violence.
Opponents blame harsh police tactics.
“The aim was to highlight the abuses carried out in the region,” one student told Reuters, saying he did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“We waved white cloth to indicate that we were peaceful protesters. But police started beating us up,” he said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said last month that protesters it spoke to and who had been detained after the outbreak of demonstrations in November had been subjected to severe beatings and never appeared before a judge.
The group said women suffered sexual assaults and mistreatment. It said one 18-year-old student was “given electric shocks to his feet”.
Officials dismissed the report as not worthy of comment.