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Eritrea: Human Rights

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 27, 2004 (040527)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Releasing its annual human rights report this week, Amnesty International charged that the U.S.-led "war on terror" has contributed to sacrificing human rights and turning a blind eye to abuses, without enhancing security. Among the African governments that has most enthusiastically embraced the anti-terror rationale is Eritrea, the subject of a new Amnesty International report released to coincide with the country's 13th anniversary of independence on May 24.

The sharp escalation in repression of internal critics and journalists by the Eritrean government highlighted in the Amnesty report excerpted below came in September 2001, only a week after 9/11. This week, the Eritrean Ambassador to the United States, speaking at a Washington press conference, cited his government's strong support for the U.S. campaign against global terrorism. He also quoted U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who visited Asmara in December 2002 and affirmed that the U.S. could "benefit from [Eritrea's] knowledge and experience" [in fighting terrorism]. [Text of speech available at
http://dehai.org/archives/dehai_news_archive/0533.html]

Amnesty's worldwide report, which listed some 132 countries identified as using "torture and ill-treatment," including the U.S. and 37 African countries, is available at
http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/index-eng
A message from Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan, introducing the report, stresses that human rights activists around the world must continue to speak out to counter the "accountability gap" of governments, international institutions, armed groups and corporate actors.

Amnesty's summary overview for Africa is at
http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/2af-index-eng
and can also be found at
http://allafrica.com/stories/200405261269.html

Amnesty's full archive of documents on Africa, including annual reports, news, actions, and other reports, is at
http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-2af/index

For additional links and background data on Eritrea, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/eritrea.php

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Many thanks to those of you who have already sent in your voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you have not yet made such a payment and would like to do so, please visit http://www.africafocus.org/support.php for details.

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Eritrea: Government resists scrutiny on human rights and calls to end torture and arbitrary detention

Amnesty International Press Release

http://news.amnesty.org

AI Index: AFR 64/004/2004 (Public) News Service No: 118 19 May 2004

Since the crackdown two-and-a-half years ago on peaceful dissent and calls for democratic reform, torture, arbitrary detention, "disappearances" and ill-treatment of political prisoners have become entrenched in Eritrea, Amnesty International said today in a new report, Eritrea:' You have no right to ask' - Government resists scrutiny on human rights.

President Issayas Afewerki's one-party government has stopped all dialogue on human rights and rejected any scrutiny of violations. "The government's refusal of openness and accountability about its human rights practices is contrary to human rights safeguards in the Eritrean Constitution and laws, and the international human rights treaties Eritrea has ratified," Amnesty International said.

On the occasion of the 11th anniversary of formal independence on 24 May, Amnesty International is calling on the Government of Eritrea to release all prisoners of conscience, take steps to eradicate the use of torture, bring all prisoners within a proper system of impartial justice and humane treatment in custody, and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression of peaceful opinion and religious belief and the freedom of the press. Amnesty International also calls on the international community to provide full protection for Eritrean refugees.

Prisoners of conscience in Eritrea include former liberation movement leaders who helped to win Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia in 1991.The government has branded former foreign minister Haile Woldetensae and other leading critics arrested in September 2001 as "traitors", supposedly collaborating with Ethiopia during and after the bitter war of 1998-2000. Ten independent journalists were detained too and the entire private press banned - they have been maligned as "mercenaries and spies for Ethiopia", an accusation totally unsubstantiated.

None of these prisoners has been charged with any offence or presented to a court. They have not been seen by their families since then and the authorities refuse to say where they are detained or how they are treated. Thousands of other political detainees are also virtually "disappeared".

Amnesty International was informed that a group of mothers of detainees and the "disappeared" were even told, "You have no right to ask [about them]". Whether criticism of government abuses is about prominent or "unknown" political detainees, religious persecution, punishment-torture of national service conscripts, or detention and torture of returned asylum-seekers (those forcibly returned, for example, by Malta in late 2003), the government routinely dismisses concerns and criticisms backed by well-documented evidence as "malicious smears" and "misinformation".

In its latest report, the organization presents testimony and sketched illustrations of various methods of torture used on detainees in Eritrea. Prisoners have been tied with ropes for days or weeks non-stop in contorted painful positions. These torture methods have nick-names such as "the helicopter", "Jesus Christ" (a position resembling crucifixion) and "number eight". Prisoners are tortured as the standard punishment for evading or escaping conscription or for a military offence, or while being interrogated about suspected alleged political opposition.

Prisoners are held in atrocious conditions - damp underground cells, overcrowded and sweltering shipping containers, secret security sections of official police stations or prisons, military prisons and make-shift rural prison camps. They have a poor diet, little water for drinking or washing, and virtually no medical treatment for torture injuries or illness.

The increasing flow of refugees from Eritrea includes many torture victims as well as others fleeing compulsory national military service for all men and women between 18 and 40 years (which has been extended indefinitely), religious persecution, repression of peaceful political dissent, as well as suspicion of support for armed opposition groups neighboring countries.

Religious persecution of minority Christian faiths has escalated in the past two years, particularly against Jehovah's Witnesses (who were stripped of their basic civic rights in 1994) and evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Three Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained incommunicado by the army for the last ten years because of their faith-based refusal of military service. The government does not recognize the right to conscientious objection. Members of other minority churches have been jailed and tortured or ill-treated to make them abandon their faith. They are not allowed to practice their religion during national service and bibles have been burned. Muslims have been targeted too, some held in secret incommunicado detention for years on suspicion of links with an Islamist armed opposition group operating from Sudan.

Amid continuing tensions over the border with Ethiopia and fears of a new war, Amnesty International's report warns of a possible repeat of human rights abuses committed in the previous war by both sides against civilians and prisoners of war.


Eritrea: "You have no right to ask: Government resists scrutiny on human rights"

Amnesty International
AI Index: AFR 64/003/2004
19 May 2004

[Excerpts only; full 30-page report, including footnotes, available at http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR640032004]

"We were beaten and mostly were tied in the 'helicopter' position and tortured in groups of 10 to 15. We were tied up day and night, except for three short food and toilet breaks. I was tied up for two weeks. One of us got very ill with bronchitis and there was no medical treatment. Some got paralysed in the arms and legs." - An Eritrean deported from Malta in October 2002, speaking of detention in Adi Abeto prison.

"You can't ask about prisoners - You have no right to ask." - Security officer responding to a group of mothers of detainees, Asmara, mid-2003.

Introduction

... Human rights violations continue in Eritrea on a massive scale. Thousands of government critics and political opponents - many of them prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence - are detained in secret. Some have been held for several years. None has been taken to court, charged or tried. In some cases, panels of military and police officers have reportedly handed down prison sentences in secret proceedings that flout basic standards of fair trial. Detainees are not informed of the accusations made against them, have no right to defend themselves or be legally represented, and have no recourse to an independent judiciary to challenge abuses of their fundamental rights.

Torture is systematically practiced within the army for interrogation and punishment, particularly of conscription evaders, deserters and soldiers accused of military offences, and members of minority churches. Torture is also used against some political prisoners. Furthermore, the atrocious conditions under which many political prisoners are held amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The government dismisses the criticism from all sides of its appalling human rights record. It ignores the principle of the rule of law and flagrantly contravenes the human rights safeguards in Eritrea's Constitution and laws. It has ratified several international human rights treaties - though not the whole range - but does not adhere to them in practice. It allows no criticism in the country - critics and human rights defenders have been detained or have fled the country. The government refuses to engage in dialogue about human rights, either with its own citizens or with the international community. ...

1. Political context

Eritrea is a de facto one-party state, where the only party permitted is the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the re-named former marxist-leninist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) which won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year liberation war. Independence was formalized with international recognition in 1993 following a UN-supervised referendum. It was supported by the new Ethiopian government headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former ally of the EPLF leader and new Eritrean President, Issayas Afewerki.

Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia gradually deteriorated and a bitter two-year border war was fought from 1998 to 2000. After the war, demands inside Eritrea for democratization were suppressed with the detention of dissidents in September 2001. Former government ministers and EPLF leaders heading this movement were accused of links with Ethiopia. Private newspapers which started criticising the government in 2000 after the Ethiopian war have been suspended indefinitely since 2001. Religious persecution has been increasing since 2003. Independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not allowed and the legitimate role of human rights defenders is not recognized. International human rights NGOs (including Amnesty International) are barred from the country, few foreign journalists are allowed in (with the exception of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC). Travel inside the country by diplomats, international organizations and foreign journalists is restricted.

The President and his supporters in the PFDJ have stopped engagement with peaceful local criticism which has been silenced by arbitrary and unlawful detentions. The chief critics of the President and many of the prisoners of conscience - self-styled "democratic reformists" - have been branded by him as "traitors, mercenaries and spies". Many are his former comrades among the founders and leaders of the EPLF in its central committee and secret inner circle, military commanders, ex-fighters ("veterans") and civilian activists.

The large world-wide Eritrean diaspora, possibly as many as a half-million on top of Eritrea's estimated 3.5 million population, consists mainly of refugees from harsh Ethiopian repression of the Eritrean liberation struggle. Many Eritreans abroad are now naturalized citizens of western countries which gave them asylum, while others remain in neighbouring countries without having found a durable solution to their plight, some still in refugee camps and unable to return safely to their former homes. But there is now an increasing flow of new post-independence asylum-seekers from Eritrea to various countries in the world. The growing Eritrean diaspora, few of whom are returning home, has been drawn into the current crisis of democracy and human rights. ...

Fears of renewed war

Fears in the international community grew in mid-2003 of the risk of a new war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the unresolved border issue, which some observers call a "no war, no peace" situation(2). The two-year border war with Ethiopia ended with a cease-fire in June 2000 and a Peace Agreement in December 2000.

The international community including the United Nations (UN) is working to prevent any further fighting. A UN peace-keeping force (the UN Military Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea, UNMEE) controls a buffer-zone along the border. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was established by the Peace Agreement, under the auspices of the International Court of The Hague and its Permanent Court of Arbitration, to determine and demarcate the boundary. The commission delivered its report in April 2002, which both sides had agreed in advance should be binding. However, in March 2003 it became clear that the Commission had decided that the small border town of Badme, the flashpoint starting the war, was Eritrean territory according to colonial treaties of 1900-1908 and applicable international law. Ethiopia refused to accept this. Eritrea has called for the UN to enforce the ruling. There were widespread fears of a resumption of fighting, even though both governments said that they would not start another war.

In December 2003 the UN Security Council called for political dialogue to help solve the issue and the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Envoy for this purpose, but there has been no progress to date. On 4 May 2004 the UN Security Council called on both states to "explore ways of moving the demarcation process forward". It expressed concern about Eritrea's restriction on UNMEE movements and increasing detentions of UNMEE staff, as well as about Ethiopia's continued rejection of significant parts of the border decision.

Amnesty International is concerned that a renewal of fighting could lead to a repeat of the massive human rights abuses against civilians and violations of the Geneva Conventions which were committed by both sides during the previous war. ...

2. Political imprisonment

Several hundreds or even thousands of prisoners of conscience are imprisoned on account of their non-violent opinions, beliefs and criticisms of the government. Some of these prisoners had expressed their peaceful opinions openly or had published them in newspapers, while others were punished for speaking their views in private - or were merely suspected of holding anti-government views. Some former government ministers and journalists have been held since September 2001. A wide range of other people have been arrested since then. ...

Nearly all the prisoners of conscience named in Amnesty International's previous report in 2002 are still in prison, detained arbitrarily and indefinitely without charge or trial, their whereabouts still not known. Very few have been released. Many more suspected political opponents have also been detained. The names and details of only a very small proportion of the huge number of political prisoners, allegedly running into thousands, are known to Amnesty International. ...

The President has reportedly claimed that there are no political prisoners in Eritrea and says that the former government ministers and journalists detained are "traitors" or "spies". Thousands of people are detained for political reasons but the government does not acknowledge detaining them, or say where they are held or allow any access to them. They are all held without reference to any law, without being brought before a judge, without charge or trial, and without any possibility of challenging their unlawful detention. To their families, they have "disappeared" and their families risk reprisals if they dare to ask the authorities about them.

The G15 prisoners

The major crackdown on dissent in September 2001 had started with the arrests of 11 former government ministers and EPLF leaders (members of the dissident "G15", Group of 15). They were members of the National Assembly (parliament) and long-time close colleagues of President Issayas Afewerki (4).

The President has since then reiterated his accusations - prejudicial to a fair trial, if any trial was being considered - that they were "traitors" and had sold out the country to Ethiopia during the war. They include former Vice-President Mahmoud Ahmed Sheriffo and his former wife Aster Fissehatsion, a former EPLF official and National Union of Eritrean Women leader; former Foreign Minister Haile Woldetensae, whose wife Roma Gebremichael was also detained but has been released; former EPLF intelligence chief Petros Solomon (whose wife Aster Yohannes was detained in December 2003 on her return from the USA); General Ogbe Abraha, former army chief; Beraki Gebreselassie, former government minister and previously ambassador to Germany; and other senior officials and former EPLF leaders.

Amnesty International considers all eleven to be prisoners of conscience imprisoned for their non-violent opinions. None has been taken to a court, allowed access to their family or legal counsel, charged or tried. Their parliamentary immunity was removed retroactively, which is contrary to international standards. Their whereabouts are unknown. There have been fears for their safety since several had medical conditions - Haile Woldetensae is diabetic, General Ogbe Abraha is asthmatic and Aster Fissehatsion has ulcers. In General Ogbe Abraha's case, there have been repeated rumours of his death in detention, which the government has taken no steps to disprove.

Journalists in prison

The President also accused the ten journalists detained a few days after the G15 arrests in September 2001 of being "spies and mercenaries" who had supposedly clandestinely supported the G15 "traitors" on behalf of Ethiopia. They include Fessahaye Yohannes (also known as "Joshua"), an EPLF veteran, poet and dramatist, and founder of Setit newspaper; Dawit Habtemichael, a science teacher and co-founder of Meqaleh ("Echo") newspaper; Seyoum Tsehaye, former director of Eritrean state television, a former French-language teacher and photographer; Temesgen Gebreyesus, a sports reporter and actor; and Dawit Isaak, a writer and theatre producer, co-owner of Setit newspaper(5). Dawit Isaak is a Swedish citizen but has been denied access to the Swedish embassy. He had been in hospital when the others, on hunger strike at the time, were moved to secret detention. The journalists are reported to be held in secret security sections of the 2nd and 6th police stations in Asmara. ...

In all, a total of 14 journalists are currently detained in Eritrea - one of the largest number in any country of the world and possibly the largest in relation to the country's population. In addition, over 50 other Eritrean journalists - including virtually all who had been working for the private press - have fled to various countries in the world and sought asylum. International media associations have recognized the plight of Eritrean journalists - a challenging new profession in this small and closed country - with awards for their human rights defence activities.(7)

Political detentions since 2001

There were many other detentions shortly after these two dramatic round-ups in September 2001, when dissent was escalating rapidly. Others arrested in the same conditions and not seen since include dozens of senior civil servants, diplomats, military commanders, health professionals, businesspeople, and more journalists. Nearly all had a long EPLF background as senior fighters or supporters. ...

Amnesty International considers these and other detainees as prisoners of conscience imprisoned for their non-violent opinions. Their whereabouts in detention are not known. None of them has been taken to a court, allowed access to legal counsel, charged or tried. ...


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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