Eritrea: Repression past and present
Unsafe for dissenters and human rights defenders
Eritrea is one of the most closed countries in the world and remains an unsafe place for political dissenters or anyone who attempts to escape its indefinite national service program. Government critics outside the country are often harassed, intimidated or even threatened by members of the government’s party (the only party permitted to operate in Eritrea). Those inside the country who publicly criticize, or who are perceived as critical of the government are frequently arrested without being formally charged and are usually detained indefinitely, usually without access to a lawyer. Many human rights defenders and independent journalists have been subjected to enforced disappearance, with friends and relatives deprived of information about their fate or whereabouts for many years after their arrest. While serious human rights violations occurred beforehand, 18 September 2001 was a historical turning point as it marked the beginning of a government campaign of repression that continues to date.
The world must stand with the detainees and call for their immediate and unconditional release.
18 Stolen years
In May 2001, a group of 15 senior officials of the ruling party People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), now referred to as the G-15 or Group of 15, met and signed an open letter to President Isaias Afwerki urging him to implement the constitution and to hold open elections. The letter described and made proposals for solving what it called the "crisis of Eritrea", making "a call for correction, a call for peaceful and democratic dialogue, a call for strengthening and consolidation, a call for unity, a call for the rule of law and for justice, through peaceful and legal ways and means". The letter contended that the President and the PFDJ were obligated by the Constitution to call internal party meetings, follow correct parliamentary and government procedures and implement a number of promises the party had made, particularly in regard to judicial reform. The Secretary General of PFDJ accused the G15 of attempting to destabilize the country.
The G15 and human rights defenders
On 18 September 2001, security agents moved to arrest 11 of the G-15 and the journalists that reported on their activities (four of the G-15 were out of the country at the time and have remained in exile since). Other individuals who were assumed to be working with them were arrested in the subsequent months. All of the G-15 were members of the central committee of the PFDJ and had been popular military and/or political leaders during the liberation struggle (from 1961-1991). 18 September 2001 also marks the day that the government summarily banned all privately-owned media outlets in Eritrea. Since their arrest, the government have failed to formally acknowledge their detention or disclose information about the fate or whereabouts of the G-15 members or the journalists who wrote about their letter. The government refuses to acknowledge their existence and will not answer any questions about the status of the G-15 or journalists who were arrested at that time. There have been unverified reports that some of these individuals are alive and still in prison, but none of them has been seen or heard from since their arrests and have not been granted access to a lawyer. Any members of the G-15 and any journalists who wrote about their letter who remain in detention are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.
Minister Berhane Abrehe recently arrested without a trace
The Eritrean government often used the protracted border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia as justification for widespread restriction of rights and freedoms. However, repression of political dissent in Eritrea continues despite the 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia. On 16 September 2018, three months after the restoration of relations between the two countries, Eritrean security forces arrested Berhane Abrehe, former Minister of Finance, barely a week after he published a book entitled Eritrea Hagerey, (Eritrea My Country). The book criticized the Eritrean government and called on Eritreans to use peaceful means to bring about democracy in the country. Ahead of his book launch on 11 September, Berhane had challenged President Isaias Afwerki to a televised public debate to discuss the suffering he said the president had caused Eritreans. According to Efrem Berhane, Berhane Abrehe’s son, his father’s whereabouts are unknown.
Indefinite National Service and the refugee exodus
Since 1995, all Eritreans between the ages of 18-40 are required by law to undertake six months of national service training followed by 12 months of national military service. However, after the government launched the Warsai Yikealo development campaign in 2002, a national campaign geared at using Eritrean skill to improve the country, this period was extended to be indefinite for almost everyone in the program.
Young Eritreans see no future in their country and foresee that they will never have a real say in how the country will be run or be able to meaningfully participate in any decision making. So they leave.
Since the Warsai Yikealo development program was implemented, Eritrea has consistently been one of the world’s largest refugee producers per GDP, despite the fact that it has not had any active armed conflict since the end of its conflict with Ethiopia in 2000. Here is the story of Senai, a young Eritrean man who found his way to Israel only to be sent back home.
Those who get caught trying to leave the country are often detained for a minimum of six months. Depending on other circumstances, others can be detained for an indefinite amount of time. One example of this is Ciham Ali, a 15-year-old Eritrean-American girl who was forcibly disappeared by the Eritrean government when she attempted to escape the national service program after her father defected from his position as Minister of Information.
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Repression beyond borders
But the repressive behaviour is not restricted to people residing inside Eritrean borders. In our report, Repression without Borders, human rights activists living outside Eritrea and non-Eritrean human rights defenders have been threatened or assaulted after they have criticised the Eritrean government. The long arm of the state, stretching through Eritrean diplomatic missions and members and supporters of the ruling the ruling party, PFDJ, closely monitors activities and unleashes various forms of threats, attacks and harassment on Eritreans and non-Eritreans who are real or perceived critics of the government and its human rights record. As a result, they had to live with constant threats to their own security and the security of their relatives in Eritrea, causing them to take security precautions when conducting public advocacy. The government has mobilized and uses the ruling party’s youth wing YPFDJ, which is active abroad, notably in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway, to harass, intimidate and threaten individuals and entities that criticize the Eritrean’s government’s human rights record. The long arm of the Eritrean government does not spare foreign journalists and UN representatives from direct or state sponsored physical and online harassment and intimidation.
Father Mussie Zerai- Punished for good work
Father Mussie Zerai, a well-known Eritrean Catholic priest often receives distress calls and messages from migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and relays them to the Italian Coast Guard and other organizations who provide search and rescue services. In recognition of his service to humanity, Father Mussie was nominated for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
However, this selfless act of humanity has not spared him from attacks by YPFDJ members. He told us:
“Supporters of the Eritrean Government, especially members of the YPFDJ, regularly disrupt conferences I organize or attend on the human rights situation in Eritrea.”
Father Mussie told us about his experience of online harassment, which also indicates a trend in different forms, as reported by other HRDs. He said:
“I also noticed social media attacks on my credibility through character assassination, including allegations that I connive with the traffickers for financial gain.”
Winta Yemane – “Young and ignorant”
Winta Yemane was born and brought up in Italy. Eager to connect with her Eritrean roots, she joined the youth arm of the YFPDJ in what she thought would give her a platform to contribute to positive political advancement of her country. She volunteered to help the Italian chapter of YPFDJ with their communications and social media engagement. During a workshop organized by Eritrean diplomatic officials in Oslo, where she and other participants were invited to share their vision for Eritrea, Winta says they quickly got annoyed with her during her speech: “I mentioned human rights, a constitution and independent judiciary as part of my wish list for Eritrea. My list did not fare well with the two YPFDJ officials. The PFDJ officials attending the workshop said that I am a victim of misinformation by the western propaganda and enemies of Eritrea. They also said that my comments do not have weight because I am a minor. Three of the organizers even threatened to throw me out of the conference.” When she returned to Milan, she started noticing unfamiliar people following her on her way home from school. “The stalking continued for more than two weeks until I reported the matter to the police. But then the attacks and harassment start[ed] to come through phone calls from ‘private’ numbers, and character assassination on Facebook. The most repeated one was that ‘I poison or spike people’s drinks’. I think that was done to estrange me from the Eritrean community so that I wouldn’t contaminate others with notions of human rights or the constitution,” Winta. While she reported this harassment and intimidation to the local police Winta remains concerned for her safety.
Martin Plaut – Foreign journalist assaulted
Martin Plaut, former BBC Africa Editor and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, has also been targeted by supporters and members of the PFDJ due to his journalistic and human rights work on Eritrea. He speaks of several instances of intimidation. The harassment he has experienced, includes being publicly shouted at and accused of taking bribes by the First Secretary to the Eritrean Embassy in the UK during a conference at the University of London on 3 February 2014.
In the latest attack on 30 November 2018, a man who identified himself as ‘Yakob Gabriel’ called Martin Plaut, saying that he wanted to arrange a meeting and give him footage smuggled out of Eritrea. They agreed to meet at the British Library in London. While at the reception waiting for the meeting, Yacob called Martin Plaut to meet him at a café in the courtyard of the library. Once Martin Plaut arrived at the café, the man brought a bucket full of egg and milk batter and splashed the liquid on him. The attacker and other Eritreans around filmed the attack and called Martin Plaut a “traitor”.
The Eritrean Ambassador to Japan was quick to appreciate this harassment in his Twitter post, indicating tacit official approval of the assault.