Lucy Popescu

Dawit Isaak

Last month, on 2 June, PEN marked the five thousand days that the Swedish-Eritrean writer and journalist Dawit Isaak (LR, April 2009) has been held without charge or trial. On 18 September 2001, after the Eritrean authorities closed all eight of the country’s private newspapers, Isaak and at least nine other independent journalists were rounded up and detained, along with eleven former members of the Eritrean government who had signed an open letter critical of the government. According to PEN, Isaak, at least five print journalists and all the politicians remain detained incommunicado, while at least four other journalists have reportedly died in custody.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and Isaias Afwerki was elected president in April 1993. Afwerki now governs virtually every aspect of Eritrean life. Since he came to power, there have been no further elections; political parties are banned and the independent media is stifled. Human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and ‘enforced disappearances’, are considered the product of deliberate government policy.

On 8 June this year the United Nations Commission of Inquiry released its 484-page report into human rights abuses in Eritrea since independence. It concluded that ‘systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations’ may amount to crimes against humanity. The commission found that citizens are subject to constant surveillance and that it is ‘not law that rules Eritreans but fear’. Freedom of movement is restricted, with permits required for movement beyond the community where a person works or lives. Thousands attempt to leave Eritrea every year and many end up stranded in perilously unsafe and overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean. The commission underlined that they are fleeing not for economic reasons but to escape persecution, and recommended that the international community should ‘continue to provide protection to all those who have fled and continue to flee Eritrea’ and that governments should ‘end bilateral and other arrangements that jeopardize the lives of those who seek asylum’.

Since the crackdown in 2001, the Eritrean authorities have steadfastly refused to confirm the reasons why Isaak and the other journalists were detained. 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. In some media interviews, Afwerki has referred to the journalists as ‘spies’ in the pay of the CIA. Political commentators have suggested that the media crackdown was an attempt to stamp out criticism of the Eritrean government’s treatment of students and political dissenters, and of its conflict with Ethiopia.

Born in 1964, Isaak, a playwright and writer, was also co-owner of the weekly newspaper Setit. He holds Swedish citizenship after spending a number of years in the country during the Eritrean war of independence and the subsequent border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He has been elected an honorary member of various PEN centres. According to Ola Larsmo, president of Swedish PEN, ‘Dawit Isaak returned to Eritrea from Sweden and showed that serious journalism was possible in a country still marked by a long war. He took an active part in rebuilding his country, with the help of language and honesty. For this, he and his colleagues have been imprisoned and tortured for years.’ Dessale B Abraham, writer and cofounder of PEN Eritrea, claims that ‘Dawit Isaak and his colleagues are icons of freedom of expression in our society. Risking their lives, they spoke truth to power and paved the long and often arduous way towards freedom of expression.’

Little is known about Isaak’s detention except that he has spent half of his time in solitary confinement, has been tortured and is in very poor physical and mental health. In 2011, it was reported that Isaak was held in the Eiraeiro maximum-security prison camp, ten miles north of the capital, Asmara, along with a number of the other detained journalists. Isaak has been hospitalised several times since his imprisonment, including in 2002 for injuries sustained through torture. In November 2005, Isaak was briefly released for a medical check-up and to call his family and friends following pressure by groups in Sweden. Since then, he has not been allowed any contact with the outside world, is routinely shackled and has been denied adequate medical care. Some prisoners are said to be held in metal containers or underground cells in temperatures of around 50˚C.

Readers might like to send appeals protesting the prolonged imprisonment of Dawit Isaak, five journalists and eleven former cabinet members since September 2001; urging the Eritrean authorities to release details of Isaak’s health and whereabouts, as well as that of the other detainees; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Isaak and the other surviving journalists and ministers held in violation of their right to free expression.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Tesfamicael Gerahtu Ogbaghiorghis
Embassy of the State of Eritrea
96 White Lion Street
London N1 9PF
Fax: 020 7713 0096

President Isaias Afwerki
c/o Embassy of the State of Eritrea
Fax: 020 7713 0096

Update: On 7 June 2015, the Saudi supreme court confirmed the ten-year prison sentence and one thousand lashes imposed on editor Raef Badawi (LR, Feb 2013 & July 2014), for ‘insulting Islam’ and ‘founding a liberal website’. The decision of the supreme court is final. Badawi received the first fifty lashes in January 2015. Subsequent sessions scheduled to take place weekly have been postponed. PEN continues to call for Badawi’s release, for his conviction to be overturned and for his sentence of flogging to be halted.

Donmar Warehouse


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