Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest by passenger and route size, will know if it has a case to answer at the end of the month for claims of preventing certain ethnic Tigrayans from flying.
The Ethiopian Federal High Court will deliver a ruling on the jurisdiction on June 30 over a suit where the state-owned carrier is accused of blocking Tigrayans from travelling to local and international destinations out of the Tigray.
The suit filed by Human Rights First, a local organisation, claims the airline is preventing “Tigrayans aged 15 to 60” from buying flight tickets from the northern Tigray region to the capital Addis Ababa and further to foreign destinations.
The rights body also claims the flag carrier has increased ticket prices for the route as a form of “collective sanction” against the people of Tigray.
Several passengers who spoke to The EastAfrican said Ethiopian Airlines has more than doubled air ticket prices from the Tigray region to Addis Ababa in recent months. Those claims also form part of the suit, and the court will decide whether it has the authority to hear it.
Human Rights First said the ongoing discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans violates Ethiopia’s constitution, which contains articles ensuring equality among ethnic groups and guaranteeing freedom of movement.
“By discriminating between citizens and limiting their freedom of movement, the accused has infringed upon their fundamental and democratic rights,” the lawsuit documents seen by The EastAfrican read.
Tigrayans trying to travel to the Ethiopian capital say they were prevented from buying tickets and had to bribe airline staff and airport security to board flights.
42-year-old Hadgu (whose first name is withheld for safety reasons) claimed that he was blocked from entering Mekelle’s Alula Aba Nega airport on February 26, 2023. He was travelling to Addis Ababa to apply for a new passport.
“My friend and I had to pay 15,000 birr ($270) each in bribe to board the Ethiopian Airlines flight,” Hadgu said.
The two are among thousands of Tigrayans who were deprived of their right to free movement, Human Rights First says.
“We filed a lawsuit against Ethiopian Airlines on May 16, 2023. Ethiopian Airlines presented a written response to the lawsuit on June 1,” Mebrihi Berhane, one of the two lawyers who filed the case, told The EastAfrican.
“There will be a ruling on the jurisdiction of the court on June 30 at the Federal High Court,” he added.
The lawyer said since it filed the suit, the carrier has lowered the ticket prices and removed restrictions on Tigrayans’ travel. But, the rights group says it is pursuing a legal reprimand for the airline.
It is also seeking Ethiopian Airlines to offer an official apology for the “monetary and moral” damage caused.
In a statement last week, Ethiopian Airlines said it “does not have the legal authority to impose prohibitions.”
It also denied price discrimination claims targeting Tigrayans as “false” allegations.
Commercial flights resumed to Tigray on December 28, 2022, following a November peace deal that ended a two-year fight between Tigray regional authorities and the federal government of Ethiopia.
But two weeks later, travel restrictions were imposed on nearly all age groups for unknown reasons, the rights group says.
Only the elderly, children and patients with medical referral letters were allowed to fly out of Tigray.