20 years of independence but still no freedom

by Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Eritrea Researcher

Today – 24 May – is Eritrean Independence Day, marking a victory won at the cost of many lives and sacrifices. But now, 20 years on, many of the architects of independence languish in secret prisons, without any charge or trial, because they called for reform in their new country. Alongside them are thousands of political prisoners detained because they tried to work as journalists, tried to practice their religion, or were suspected of opposition to the government.

Amnesty International believes that not one of the at least 10,000 political prisoners jailed by the Eritrean authorities over the last 20 years has been charged with a crime or taken to court. In hundreds of cases those prisoners have never had access to their families, and relatives don’t know if their loved one is alive or dead. Some families have lived with this uncertainty for 10 or even 20 years.

I’ve seen the anguish

I find it hard to imagine what it feels like not knowing where your father, mother, sister or brother is. But I have seen the anguish this causes. I have listened while family members cry as they tell me about not knowing where their father is and whether he is alive, or not knowing where their sister is and what is being done to her.

Torture in Eritrea’s prisons is commonplace. Conditions are horrendous. I remember the feeling in my stomach the first time a former political prisoner described to me the conditions in an over-crowded, underground cell in desert heat, saying ”you had to stand up at all times, if you sat down, the floor was so hot that when you stood up again, the skin would rip off your legs.”

On 9 May Amnesty International released its report Twenty years of independence, but still no freedom: two decades of widespread arbitrary detention in Eritrea, documenting the government’s use of arbitrary arrest and detention without charge on a vast scale to silence all forms of dissent.

Lack of transparencyIn response, the Eritrean embassy in the UK denied the existence of any political prisoners and criticized Amnesty international for, among other things, not knowing the exact figures of numbers detained. The irony is clear: the lack of transparency and due legal process around detention procedures in Eritrea makes it impossible for numbers of prisoners to be verified.

As well as the report, Amnesty International launched “20 days of action” featuring cases of prisoners and related topics as well as an online action calling for prisoners to be released. The response and interest has been fantastic. Social media sites have been alive with the cases being discussed, shared and tweeted, all helping to ensure that these prisoners are not forgotten.

But we still need to pressure the Eritrean authorities to either immediately release prisoners or charge them with a recognizable offence and give them a fair trial. We will take our petition to the authorities to call on them to end the violations. And we need your voice to make that call louder.

TAKE ACTIONTake action today, and ensure that the next Eritrean Independence Day celebrates not just independence, but also freedom.