Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopia has "ruthlessly targeted" and tortured its largest ethnic group for perceived opposition to the government, Amnesty International said in a damning report Tuesday.
Thousands of people from the Oromo ethnic group have been "regularly subjected to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charge, enforced disappearance, repeated torture and unlawful state killings," said the report, based on over 200 testimonies.
"Dozens of actual or suspected dissenters have been killed."
At least 5,000 Oromos have been arrested since 2011 often for the "most tenuous of reasons", for their opposition -- real or simply assumed -- to the government, the report added.
Many are accused of supporting the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Former detainees, who have fled the country and were interviewed by Amnesty in neighbouring Kenya, Somaliland and Uganda, described torture "including beatings, electric shocks, mock execution, burning with heated metal or molten plastic and rape, including gang rape," the report said.
One young girl said hot coals were dropped on her stomach because her father was suspected of supporting the OLF, while a teacher described how he was stabbed in the eye with a bayonet after he refused to teach "propaganda about the ruling party" to students.
- 'Relentless crackdown' -
Government spokesman Redwan Hussein "categorically denied" the report, and accused Amnesty of having an agenda and of repeating old allegations.
"It (Amnesty) has been hellbent on tarnishing Ethiopia's image again and again," he told AFP.
Those arrested included peaceful protesters, opposition party members and even Oromos "expressing their Oromo cultural heritage," Amnesty said.
Family members of suspects have also been arrested, some taken when they asked about a relative who had disappeared, and had then been detained themselves without charge for months or even years.
"The Ethiopian government's relentless crackdown on real or imagined dissent among the Oromo is sweeping in its scale and often shocking in its brutality," Amnesty researcher Claire Beston said.
"This is apparently intended to warn, control or silence all signs of 'political disobedience' in the region," she added, describing how those she interviewed bore the signs of torture, including scars and burns, as well as missing fingers, ears and teeth.
With nearly 27 million people, Oromia is the most populated of the country's federal states and has its own language, Oromo, distinct from Ethiopia's official Amharic language.
In jail, detainees are crammed into crowded underground cells in "miserable conditions," the report said.
Some of those who spoke to Amnesty said people had been arrested for organising a student cultural group. Another said they were arrested because they delivered the baby of the wife of a suspected OLF member.
"Frequently, it's because they refused to join the ruling party," Beston added, warning that many were fearful attacks would increase ahead of general elections due in May 2015.
In April and May, security forces shot dead student protesters in Oromia.
At the time, the government said eight were killed, but groups including Human Rights Watch said the toll was believed to be far higher.
Amnesty said dozens were killed in the protests.