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Eritrea: Dissent at Issue
Eritrea: Dissent at Issue
Date distributed (ymd): 011011
Document reposted by APIC
Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
This posting contains excerpts from recent articles by
allAfrica.com on internal dissent in Eritrea and the government
response, as well as the most recent update from the UN's
Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN). Many former
supporters of the government in the country and among the Eritrean
diaspora are saying it is urgent for the government to open up
debate rather than to regard dissent as treason. The full text of
these articles and other recent news can be found at
Paper Trail That Put Eritrea's Dissidents in Jail
September 21, 2001
By Charles Cobb Jr. Washington, DC
From Berlin, Germany, almost one year ago, on October 1, thirteen
Eritrean academics and professionals wrote to President Isaias
Afewerki. It was a cautious letter, written at the end of the
two-year war with Ethiopia. It was supportive of Afewerki's
leadership "and our government in its defense of our country's
sovereignty and territorial integrity."
But its mild opening paragraphs also contained the outline of sharp
political criticism and challenge. "It is our firm belief that the
military threat posed by Ethiopia cannot be dealt with separately
from the political and economic challenges that confront us as a
The letter went on to question the causes of "this tragic war,"
repeating that because of it there was a "need for critical review
of the post-independence developments in Eritrea." In addition to
the suffering and loss of property caused by the war, said this
group, dubbed the G-13, the war "has also raised grave questions
about the conduct of Eritrean affairs both domestic and foreign,
and about the nature of our leadership in the post-independence
For some time, some of the leading figures in Eritrea's
independence war had been arguing among themselves. Collective
leadership was being abandoned, some felt. The role of the party -
the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in both
government and the economy was another matter for dispute.
Implementation of the constitution needed to be speeded up, some
thought. The debate had not become public. "Eritrea is at a
crossroad," the writers concluded.
The letter, intended to be a private letter, was almost immediately
leaked to Eritrean and Ethiopian websites and what was now termed
"the Berlin Manifesto" triggered a higher pitch of argument.
For his part, President Afewerki invited the group to meet with
him. His view, however, as he expressed it in a press interview,
was that the G-13 did not know what they were talking about. "They
know it and I know it, that these are completely detached people
from reality who have never been here. They came up with their
opinions. I respect anyone's opinion. I do not see any substantive
issue on the paper outside the publicity given to it."
The group met with Afewerki in Asmara on November 25th, bringing
yet another letter. In this document they stated that they were not
a political group and made a formal request to work with the
government "as much as possible." They denied having anything to do
with leaking their original Berlin letter, explaining that it had
been sent by registered mail to the President with a copy to
Eritrea's ambassador to the United States. ...
Much of their discussion was on how the G-13 letter was leaked.
Afewerki was "visibly annoyed," recalled Dawit Mesfin, one of the
participants in an interview with Awate.com. "He was putting us on
the defensive. He agreed, in principal, that the issues raised in
our document were valid [but] as we made an effort to engage him on
the real issues he sort of made it clear that he did not want to
get into a political 'enkili' (circuitous talk). That was quite a
Notwithstanding some arrests of journalists who worked for
privately-owned newspapers, critical voices were muted in Eritrea
as a committee created by the National Assembly shortly before the
G-13 met with Afewerki, proceeded with its work of drafting
regulations for the formation of political parties who would
contest elections scheduled for December 2001. ...
By May, a new group of dissidents took shape as the G-15 or Group
of fifteen. Unlike the Germany-based group, the G-15 was composed
of influential PFDJ leaders like Petros Solomon, a former foreign
minister, former minister of Marine Resources and during the war,
head of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) security.
Petros, along with Afewerki, helped found the EPLF. This letter
accused the President of "conducting himself in an illegal and
A campaign to discredit the group led by the PFDJ Central Office
was immediately launched. By August PFDJ sources were saying that
President Afewerki considered the break between the party and
government on the one hand, and the G-15 on the other, as beyond
Meanwhile dissent, believed to have been sparked by the G-15,
surfaced in yet another arena. On September 9, some members of the
PFDJ Central Council and the Eritrean National Assembly issued a
seven-page statement called "Obstacles To The Transition Of Power
To The People." The statement accused the executive branch of
government of delaying election preparations and called for "an
open and free forum to evaluate the experience of the Front and the
Finally, this week, eleven of the 15 signatories of the letter were
arrested in pre-dawn raids. Simultaneous with their round-up, all
eight privately-owned newspapers were shut down in Eritrea.
According to the government, the G-15 was plotting to establish
political cells in and out of government throughout Eritrea,
coordinating their activities with "established regional
There were, and still are, rumors that several will be charged with
treason. The whereabouts of the group is unknown. Three of the
fifteen are said to be in the United States.
It's an Issue of National Security, Not Politics, Says Ambassador
September 27, 2001
By Charles Cobb Jr. Washington, DC
Questions still surround last week's arrest and detention of 11
senior members of the ruling party and government in Eritrea.
Although the government has not formally detailed the charges,
there are some indications that the detainees - members of the
Group of 15, or G-15, who have been vocal critics of the government
-- will be tried for endangering national security. Although there
is widespread awareness of the political tensions of the past year,
the accusation has taken many observers by surprise. AllAfrica's
Charles Cobb Jr. spoke to Eritrea's Ambassador to the United
States, Girma Asmerom. Excerpts:
Exactly what is going on? As we understand it, about a dozen senior
members of the party and government, veterans of the war against
Ethiopia are being detained by the government. Is that true?
Yes it is true but the way it is presented in the media is not
true. To be simple and straight it is an issue of national security
and sovereignty, not because they put out a letter against their
government and their President, not at all. That is absolutely pure
deception, untruthful to reality because, in any society, the law
of the land prevails. And they are detained in accordance to the
law of the land, and the law of the land is the law of the day in
What exactly did they do that was a threat, either to national
security or in violation of the law?
I think this is for the legal people and the court; this is a court
You understand the source of the questions don't you? These
detainees are so identified with Eritrea's liberation struggle,
veterans, that many people are startled. It is difficult to imagine
a Petros Solomon [former foreign minister] as a threat to national
Why don't you leave it to the legal system then? We are all
veterans. Because of the 30 years war, literally every Eritrean is
a veteran - because of the prolonged war. That does not give any
green light or green card for anybody [to say]: "because I was a
veteran, because I was holding a high post I can violate the law of
the land". ...
Are they in jail?
They are detained. ... When people say these are opposition, these
are reformers, these are outspoken critics, that's not true. Nobody
in Eritrea, for opposing the government or for expressing his
opinion, will be detained. Nobody has been detained and nobody will
be detained. So the accusation is very clear and straight. It has
nothing to do with opposing, expressing your opinion, or dissenting
on any issue. ... The [government's] accusation is very explicit
and clear: National security and sovereignty. The details as I said
are up to the court proceedings. ...
A half a dozen or so newspapers were shut down. Is that part of
this national security concern?
Not at all. It has nothing to do with that. Also, they were not
shut down. Words mean a lot. And words give a lot of perception.
Sometimes wrong perception and wrong analysis. What we did was we
revoked the license of the newspapers and we are very clear and
very explicit. ...
So, the licenses of the newspapers were "revoked"? I'm not clear on
what the reason was.
The reasons are very simple. They had been violating [the press
law] for the last two or three years. As a new nation, as they were
new growing reporters, they were being told again and again, "this
is a violation. Do you know this can get your license revoked
according to the law?" ...
Eritrean Critic Urges Government to Relent on Dissidents
INTERVIEW October 5, 2001
By Charles Cobb Jr. Washington, DC
In 1991, the new government of just-liberated Eritrea requested the
help Bereket Selassie in drafting a constitution for the new nation
and he became chair of the Consitutional Commission. Selassie
served as Attorney General under Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia
but he resigned in 1962. By 1975 he was teaching at Howard
University in Washington, D.C. and working with the Eritrean
Peoples Liberation Front, the start of a long involvement with the
party that was eventually to rule Eritrea.
Now, however, Professor Selassie is one of the most vocal critics
of Eritrea's government. ... AllAfrica.com's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke
with Bereket Selassie about the situation in Eritrea.
... Is [the issue] one of reform within party and government, or is
it, as Ambassador Girma characterized it in a recent interview, an
issue of national security?
Let me begin with a reference to the Berlin letter. ...
The question of whether it should actually be a private letter or
something that should be revealed to the public was debated by the
group. The view that actually prevailed was that we should give
[President Isaias] a chance to look at our critique and we will see
how he responds to it. If his response is positive then we will
take it from there. ... we thought it was better to give him a
chance to reply to our questions. It [the manifesto] was leaked, we
believe, by agents of the government here.
In the United States?
Yes, here in the United States. Some people ask: "why would the
President or his supporters want to reveal something which was
highly critical of him?" ... our assumption is that that
calculation was made with a view toward discrediting the
signatories to the letter. And, of course, as soon as it was
leaked, all hell broke loose and there was all kinds of mudslinging
on the names and reputations of most of us.
The question now is: Why shouldn't the person to whom the letter
was addressed - namely the President of Eritrea - respond to the
issues as issues? Well, eleven out of the thirteen people [who
signed the letter] went to Asmara because he invited them to come
and discuss the issues raised in the letter. What happened in that
meeting ... raises some serious questions: Why doesn't he respond
to this letter in the spirit in which it was made, respectfully but
critically raising several critical issues about Eritrean politics
in current times? ...
Do you find yourself surprised by this reaction? ...
I wasn't surprised by the original reaction to the Berlin letter.
The extent to which some people went out of their way to sling mud
surprised me, but then that's politics.
What [really] surprised me was the fact that the members of the
[more recent] reform group, now known as the G-15, would be treated
the way they have been treated: arrested, detained for [taking]
steps that were similar to the ones that were taken by the Berlin
Only in my view, in the case of the G-15, they had actually taken
the matter to greater lengths, raising much more fundamental issues
and details and challenging [Isaias] to convene a meeting of the
transitional parliament, the national assembly, and of the Congress
- which was overdue.
The response of the President to their request to convene a meeting
was curt, peremptory and in a few words, simply dismissive - that
surprised me. Because all they were asking was to engage in a
dialogue in the manner in which they engaged in dialogue during the
armed struggle, which was characterized by collective
responsibility, collective decision-making that now has been
abandoned by him, a matter for which we had criticized him in the
We had been observing the development of Eritrean politics, over
the years since independence, increasingly becoming one-man-rule,
increasingly sidelining anybody who might be considered a threat to
him, or who might challenge him on a given number of issues.
Increasingly [it was] becoming impossible for people to hold him
accountable on a number of issues. ...
The PFDJ [Eritrea's ruling party] on its web site, speaking
specifically about the arrests, argues that there was a conspiracy
afoot and that's why the arrests were made, not because of the
criticisms, or the Berlin letter, not because of the later letter
from the G-15, but a specific conspiracy to organize cells, to
develop relationships with other countries in the region.
That's what they are saying now. It seems to me that they are
preparing the ground for charges of treason and other offences. I
doubt very much whether any one of these people who are
comrades-at-arms with Isaias would be engaged in conspiracy,
including conspiracy in consort with outside powers to overthrow
him. I very much doubt that. If that had been indeed the case, why
wasn't this stated as early as possible?
Why wait until the time when [the G-15] challenged him
democratically, legally, asking him repeatedly to convene the
meeting in order to review the record of the government and the
party's governance over the previous years, and to review the
question of the war with Ethiopia: What went wrong? Why did we
suffer a devastating defeat? And why did we prolong the war when
peace might be possible?
All these questions have been raised by many Eritreans. They are
legitimate questions. And questions that not only people who have
been close allies with him, but ordinary Eritreans can and should
raise, and were raised. If a person can be charged with a serious
crime of treason for raising such questions then I don't think that
people would be happy to live under such a political or legal
Is it known where this group is being held in Eritrea and when this
might come before a court or whatever the legal proceedings are?
I have no way of finding out where they are being held. ...
Then of course, there is the question of whether they will be
brought to court. We don't know. We don't know. It's a big
They have a constitutional right first of all to make any statement
they wish legally within the framework of the law, with regard to
Eritrean affairs, which they did. And they have been arrested for
that. All this story about their conspiracy is just a cover-up.
So, it seems to me - and I have written about this - the rule of
law has gone to the dogs in Eritrea. There was very good beginning,
a very promising beginning. We all hailed Isaias and his colleagues
in creating an enabling environment to lead to democracy and we
were waiting for that when he and his group - in my view - hijacked
They are giving the reason that it was because of the war, but
there was a whole twelve months before the war started during which
they might have implemented the constitution but they did not. ...
It is very saddening to all of us. Those of us who have associated
with the movement in one way or another have felt proud of the
achievements of the EPLF, have felt very hopeful that Eritrea was
indeed going to show the way in a very progressive, social
justice-oriented system of government.
And the constitution-making process which built on this expectation
and also built on the experience of the revolutionary struggle, was
- we hoped - going to show the way. So first of all when the war
broke out suddenly - as suddenly as midsummer thunder - we were all
shocked and amazed. And then, of course, developments since the end
of the war have showed Isaias at his most autocratic.
That is the problem. We had minimized the damage that comes out of
an autocratic mentality and autocratic method of rule. We had also
said, even if he shows tendencies of that, it can be discounted
because of his other qualities: his quality of leadership which
contributed to the success of the struggle. Now all of this is
beginning to haunt all of us. And that is exactly what the group
said: "We have let you behave autocratically and we are guilty of
What do you predict, as you look down the road? Are we going to see
a long drawn-out trial?
I hope not, because that will divide the nation. These are heroic
people who have many supporters inside Eritrea and outside. So, I
hope that Isaias will relent. I hope that some kind of peaceful
solution can be found. I am really hoping that the international
community - there are many friends of Eritrea, many personal
friends of Isaias - can play a role in getting the situation
resolved peacefully, democratically.
Recall of EU Envoys Could Hurt Aid
UN Integrated Regional Information Network
October 10, 2001
The decision by the 15-member European Union (EU) in Luxembourg
on Monday to recall all its ambassadors from Eritrea could
jeopardize the country's requests for aid. The nature of future
relations between the EU and Eritrea would be indicated by the
length of time the ambassadors stayed in Europe, the BBC reported
The Eritrean Government is yet to make an official response to
the recall of the ambassadors "for consultations". The BBC quoted
diplomatic sources as saying that all EU envoys were expected to
have left Asmara, the Eritrean capital, by the weekend. "Any
concerted hard line from EU countries could lead to a freezing of
almost all development projects in Eritrea, though it is unlikely
that humanitarian assistance will end," the BBC commented.
Italy's ambassador in Asmara, Antonio Bandini, who was also head
of the EU delegation there, was expelled on 1 October, after
expressing concern over the imprisonment by the Eritrean
government of 11 opposition figures, and over what he called "the
muzzling of the press" in the country - a reference to the
government's earlier closure of the whole of the country's
private press. ...
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by
Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information
Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa).
Africa Action's information services provide accessible
information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and
international policies toward Africa that advance economic,
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