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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Eritrea: Dissent at Issue

Eritrea: Dissent at Issue
Date distributed (ymd): 011011
Document reposted by APIC

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Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+


This posting contains excerpts from recent articles by 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

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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 new nation."

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 period."

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 "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 let-down."

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 unconstitutional manner."

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 repair.

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 government."

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 countries."

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 any society.

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 proceeding. ...

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 security.

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. ...'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 group.

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 letter.

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 situation.

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 challenge.

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 the constitution.

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 that." ...

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 on Tuesday.

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, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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