Human rights group Amnesty International called on the Ethiopian government this week to either formally charge or to release those currently in detention. Amnesty also called on the Ethiopian government to investigate allegations of torture of detainees, to allow peaceful protest, and to use "proportionality in the use of force" against demonstrators who turn violent.
For its part, the Ethiopian government justifies its actions by saying that the real troublemakers are a tiny minority of foreign-influence Salafi extremists.
"This group actually deals day and night to create an Islamic state," says Shiferaw Teklemariam, the minister responsible for religious affairs. "This in the Ethiopian context is totally forbidden and against the constitution."
Activists scoff at the accusations. Ethiopia is a secular, multi-ethnic state, where Orthodox Christians predominate, they say. How could any Islamist group hope to create an Islamic state in such a country? The dismissal is seconded by Terje Østebø, an academic at the Center for African Studies and Department of Religion, University of Florida, who studies Islam in the Horn of Africa. He says that Ethiopia's historically oppressed Muslims are enthusiastic backers of the current secular system.
"Islamic reformists in Ethiopia have been very little concerned with politics, and certainly not advocated ideas in the direction of an Islamic state," he says. "In my numerous conversations with Muslims in Ethiopia, I never came across anyone favoring such ideas."
Other regional experts lean toward the official line that there are some externally-supported radicals that have hijacked the language of democratic rights to covertly pursue fundamentalism.