President Isaias Afewerki rules Eritrea with an iron fist. Opposition parties are not permitted; freedom of expression is severely restricted; and independent writers, journalists and all those deemed critical of the government are at risk of detention without charge. Statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists make depressing reading: Eritrea is Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists and ranks third worst in the world, behind China and Burma.
Eritrea lies on the west coast of the Red Sea and borders Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Life expectancy is only fifty-one years and it is ranked 156th out of the 177 countries on the United Nations human development index. Britain and the European Union provide substantial humanitarian support. Eritrea was originally an Italian colony but in 1941 came under British Military Administration, which lasted until 1950 when the country was federated with and then absorbed by Ethiopia. It gained its independence in 1993 and in the same year Afewerki was elected President by the National Assembly. His party, now known as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has been in power ever since.
The state repression of free speech resulted in a brutal crackdown in September 2001, when the authorities detained hundreds of former government leaders, private-media journalists and civil servants, and closed down at least eight independent newspapers. At the time of writing, many people are still believed to be held incommunicado, and denied visits from their families who are afraid to request further information for fear of reprisals.
One of the writers detained is the 44-year-old Eritrean-Swedish journalist, poet and playwright Dawit Isaac, owner of Setit, a popular weekly at the time, who was arrested on 23 September 2001. He is one of nine print journalists who have been held since the crackdown without ever being charged or tried. It is thought that some of them were arrested in retaliation for having published interviews with political leaders who had been publicly calling for democratic reforms in the country. The only accusations made against them have been uncorroborated allegations by the authorities that the journalists were ‘traitors’.
Just a couple of weeks before the paper’s closure, Setit had published an open letter to the government that stated: ‘People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can’t tolerate the absence of good administration and justice.’
According to PEN, four of the journalists died in custody between 2005 and early 2007, reportedly because of the harsh conditions in which they were held and the lack of medical attention. Some sources suggest that one of them, Fesshaye Yohannes, also a staff member of Setit, had been tortured prior to his death. In November 2005, Isaac was briefly released, due to ill-health, and was allowed to call his family and friends, but he was returned to prison two days later with no explanation.
In May 2007, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruled that the detention of the journalists was arbitrary and unlawful and called on the Eritrean government to release and compensate the detainees, but so far this ruling has not been adhered to.
Isaac has Swedish citizenship and his wife and three children live in Gothenburg. The Swedish government has expressed concern for his wellbeing and considers his case ‘of the highest priority’. On 2 March 2007 the National Press Club of Sweden awarded Isaac its Press and Free Speech Prize, which was accepted by his family on his behalf.
According to a report published on the Eritrean diaspora website Eritrea Watch for Human Rights and Democracy (based in Switzerland), Isaac and 112 other political prisoners were moved to a maximum-security prison, where the conditions are particularly harsh, on 13 December 2008. Isaac was then reportedly transferred from prison to a military hospital operated by the Eritrean Air Force on 11 January 2009. It is believed that Isaac has received medical treatment for an unspecified condition. He was denied visitors.
Readers may like to send appeals calling on the Eritrean authorities to release details of Isaac’s state of health, any medical treatment prescribed, and his whereabouts, as well as that of his fellow imprisoned journalists and the eleven former cabinet members, all detained since 2001; expressing concern that they are detained in violation of their internationally recognised right to freedom of expression; and calling for their immediate and conditional release, in line with the 2007 African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruling, to:
HE Ambassador Tesfamicael Gerahtu Ogbaghiorghis
Embassy of Eritrea
96 White Lion Street
London N1 9PF
Fax: 020 7713 0161
Updates: Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was granted a Thai royal pardon on 19 February 2009 and has safely returned to Australia. Thanks to all of you who sent appeals.
On 13 February 2009, Burmese comedian and poet Zargana, had his sentence reduced by twenty-four years. He must serve the remaining thirty-five years in prison. Appeals continue for his unconditional release.