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15 Years Behind Bars in Eritrea

Monday, 19 September 2016 23:47 Written by

Allies Should Push On Whereabouts of Opposition Members and Journalists


This week marks 15 years since Eritrea’s opposition politicians and independent journalists saw freedom. In September 2001,Eritrean security forces arrested11 government officials, 10 journalists, and numerous other dissidents, all of whom had one thing in common – they had criticized President Isaias Afeworki’s leadership. None of them have been seen since.

Eritrea protests

Eritrean refugees hold placards during a protest against the Eritrean government outside their embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel May 11, 2015.

None have been charged with a crime. They have now been held in incommunicado and indefinite detention for fifteen years. They have never been visited by family members. International calls for their release have been wholly ignored. Information from prison guards and others over time has trickled out, suggesting that several have died in captivity. In June, Osman Saleh, Eritrea’s foreign minister gave hope to family members and friends when hestated to Radio France Internationale(RFI) that “they are alive”.

Eritrea is one of the worse abusers of human rights in Africa. It has no functioning legislature, no opposition parties, and no independent media. National service, where people are forced to work for the military or in other government positions, is intended to last for 18 months but is often much longer –a decade or more – and harsh, with almost non-existent pay. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, particularly for those who try to evade national service. Many Eritreans report torture in detention. There is no rule of law, and there are restrictions on movement within many parts of Eritrea – for Eritreans and foreigners alike. Thousands of Eritreans flee their country each year to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Europe seeking a better future.

In June 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry determined that abuses committed by the Eritrean regime are likely toconstitute crimes against humanity. The Commission of Inquiry report will be presented to the UN General Assembly for consideration on October 27.

Over the past two years, the EU and several countries have broken with the isolationist approach historically adopted on Eritrea and opened renewed dialogue and partnerships.

On this anniversary of Eritrea’s crackdown, the EU and Eritrea’s other new-found friends should push for information about the whereabouts of those arrested in September 2001. If they are still alive, they should be charged and tried fairly and impartially, or released immediately. 

For their family members, information about their well-being and whereabouts is long overdue. And for the Eritrean government, the move would signal they are serious about starting to implement reforms that they have spoken about but not delivered on. 

It would be a particularly important signal to give ahead of the UN General Assembly’s debate.


Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before the time of her arrest on December 8, 2012 when she was 15. (Photo: courtesy of the family)Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before the time of her arrest on December 8, 2012 when she was 15. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

Ciham Ali Abdu of Eritrea was 15 years old when she was arrested as she tried to cross the border into Sudan. Born in Los Angeles, California, she is the only American citizen imprisoned in Eritrea.

Her family, friends and the representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Asmara have had no news about her whereabouts or her health for the nearly four years she has been in prison.

Ciham is also a unique case. She is the daughter of Ali Abdu, the former minister of information of Eritrea who was one of the closest advisors to the country’s president, Isaias Afwerki. When he fled the country in December of 2012, it sent shockwaves across the nation since he was believed to be unfalteringly loyal to the regime.


Ali’s then 87-year-old father, Abdu Ahmed Younis, his brother Hassen Abdu Ahmed and Ciham were all arrested shortly after his departure and many believe they were punished as retribution for Ali’s decision to flee.

Last week, Ciham’s fate was one of the topics raised at a subcommittee hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives convened by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee titled “Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat.”

Linda Thomas–Greenfield, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the United States raises the issue of Ciham with Eritrean officials during joint meetings, but have received no information.

Eric Whitaker, the former Charge d’Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, said Eritrean officials do not acknowledge that Ciham is a U.S. citizen. “We’ve asked for consular access repeatedly and not been granted it. We are concerned regarding the case,” he said. “The answers we get are typically vague or note that such individual is an Eritrean citizen.”

Ciham left the United States when she was one or two years old, her uncle said. VOA contacted Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel and he declined to comment. In Twitter comments about the hearings he dismissed the U.S. House proceedings as “perfunctory” and a “rehash” of old information.

Ciham’s uncle, Saleh Younis, said the family is desperate for news about her and their other imprisoned family members. He said this was the first time he had heard details about the U.S. embassy’s efforts to get information about Ciham and he is disappointed that they haven’t put more pressure on the Eritrean government.

He also noted that most people caught at the border trying to flee Eritrea are detained for several months or a maximum of two years, making it clear that Ciham is being held indefinitely as a punishment for her father’s actions. “It’s a country without rules, without a system,” Saleh said. “It’s a country where the president and his small clique do whatever they want to do. When we’re talking about human rights violations it’s not in the abstract that we’re talking about, it is these kinds of agonies people go through.”

Saleh is the editor of, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies.

Ali Abdu is currently in Australia where he is seeking asylum. In an affidavit submitted to the government in support of his case which has been widelyposted onlineAli said he is suffering from insomnia and heart pains and has suicidal thoughts. He said he fears for his family in Eritrea and fears that a member of the Eritrean diaspora could seek to harm him in Australia.

“The more I talk about my secrets the more I am worried and shivering about my safety because I know what crazy things the president can do to me. Even in Melbourne I am very recognizable and I fear that government supporters are following me,” he said. 


Chairman of the House Subcommittee, Chris Smith, Republican Representative from New Jersey, cited figures from a former U.S. ambassador indicating that about 48 Eritrean national employees of the embassy were arrested or detained between 2001 and 2010 and it is unclear how many remain in detention. Smith requested additional information relating to those employees and relating to Ciham.

Thomas-Greenfield said the embassy has asked for access and information relating to these cases. “We have had over the years our foreign service nationals harassed. Some arrested and some who are still currently being held by the government,” she said. “We never miss an opportunity to raise this with the government of Eritrea encouraging them to release the American citizen but also to release our employees who have been arrested and to discontinue the harassment of our employees.”


Today marks a bleak date in the country’s history, when a paranoid elite began a brutal campaign to cement its grip on power

A migrant from Eritrea is helped after jumping into the water from a crowded wooden boat.
A migrant from Eritrea is helped after jumping into the water from a crowded wooden boat. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

Exactly 15 years ago, Eritrea’shard-won independencewas hijacked by a paranoid political elite who have clung to power ever since.

It was on this day in 2001 that President Isaias Afwerki jailed 11 top government officials and banned seven independent newspapers. So started the insidious takeover that has seen the country become a military state, prompting the exodus of Eritreans to Europe we are witnessing today.

State security agents then rounded up and jailed 12 journalists. To this day, none of the detainees have been tried in a court of law, and theyremain incommunicadoin secret prisons. Their families don’t know if they are alive.

Many civilian posts were taken over by military commanders. The army was stationed in all major towns and cities, and anyone working in the public sector was instructed to report to them.

As army rule crept in, the rule of law deteriorated. Institutionalised corruption and nepotism became the new normal. Arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances turned the country into a penitentiary state with countless underground prisons.

Recent research byEritrean human rights groupssuggests more than 360 facilities are still holding more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience.

After the ban on the private newspapers, information became centralised. State journalists continue to work under intense fear, and foreign correspondents and NGOs have in effect been banned from entering. The few who do gain access are providedwith government mindersnot unlike in North Korea.

Even a state-sanctioned radio station, Radio Bana, sponsored by the education ministry, was banned.The station was raided in February 2009and the security services arrested the entire staff, many of whom were only released afterfour to six years in jailwithout charge.

In 2012, the country introduced compulsory military service for all young men and women, including former freedom fighters. In the years since then,the UN has found the governmenthas “committed crimes against humanity in a widespread and systematic manner”, and has called for perpetrators to be tried by the international criminal court.

It is combination of all these factors that is causing an estimated 5,000 Eritreans to leave the country each month. It’s not surprising: when a generation of young people have had all hope and freedom taken away from them, the gamble of the journey across the Mediterranean offers an attractive alternative – no matter the risk.

I am one of those who escaped. I now work with a group of Eritrean journalists in exile to report on our inaccessible homeland and campaign on behalf of our peers stuck in prison. If we don’t speak for them, nobody will.


Schoolchildren flee tear gas in Nairobi after police break up a protest. Schoolchildren flee tear gas in Nairobi after police break up a protest. Oxfam says lost tax revenues from offshore holdings cost Africa an estimated $14bn a year. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Corruption is the most neglected human rights violation of our time. It fuels injustice, inequality and depravation, and is a major catalyst for migration and terrorism.

In Africa, the social and political consequences of corruption rob nations of resources and potential, and drive inequality, resentment and radicalisation. Corruption cheats the continent’s governments of some $50bn (£38bn) annually, and stymies successful cities, sustainable economies and safe societies.

This corruption discourages donors and destroys investor confidence, strangling development, progress and prosperity.

Added to that, across the continent, sociopolitical dissatisfaction at corruption provides fertile ground for radicalisation, and some extremist organisations are adept at portraying Islamism as the solution to such injustice.

For example, corruption stimulates recruitment of young Nigerians into the ranks of Boko Haram. In a recent study, 70% of those interviewed in the state of Sokoto cited corruption as a factor driving radicalisation.

By understanding corruption’s full impact and seeing it through the eyes of its victims, we can create new weapons to combat it. This is worth considering as we approach the first-year review of the sustainable development goals. Among them is SDG 16, which aims to reduce bribery and corruption, develop accountable institutions, cut the flow of illicit money and weapons, and strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets.

More can be done at a global level to support these ambitions. Bilateral trade agreements should be based on commitments to end corruption and protect human rights, and protocols to prevent corruption should be built into development aid and loans.

There are some encouraging signs on the continent. When leaders from countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria and Tanzania highlight corruption as a major threat to their countries, then we might just be seeing the final days of impunity. The test now is whether they deliver on these fresh anti-corruption promises in credible ways that take account of human rights.

Human rights are enforced by international treaties, backed by judicial bodies with teeth such as the international criminal court, the international court of justice and regional bodies such as the African court on human and people’s rights. The UN security council and the African Union’s peace and security council can impose sanctions in response to violations of political, economic, social or cultural rights, or to deal with torture, genocide and war crimes. On top of that, countries and international bodies have an obligation to act when human rights are breached.

That’s why so little progress has been made by the UN convention against corruption (Uncac). This global agreement elevated anti-corruption action to the world stage. But Uncac relies on states for implementation, and – unlike global protocols governing human rights – there is no effective sanction for those in breach. An absence of enforcement creates space for corrupt officials and businesspeople to hide without fear of pursuit or prosecution. And there is little political will to change things.

We need to give Uncac muscle by joining the moral and legal dots between corruption, human rights abuses and international crimes. Acknowledging the negative human rights impact of corruption makes it imperative for African states to provide better protection to their citizens. Africans have the most at stake in getting anti-corruption efforts to work, because corruption disproportionately affects poor people.

A more rights-based approach to corruption is a good strategy for both African and European governments. It would mean greater political stability, and provide an environment for sustained social and economic development. This, in turn, would have a positive effect on the drivers of conflict, terrorism and migration.

The human rights community built an arsenal to protect people. Now anti-corruption activists need to do the same.

  • Anton du Plessis is executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa

UN calls on Eritrea to come clean on Swedish journalist

The campaign to free Dawit Isaak is still strong in Sweden after 15 years. Photo: Frankie Fouganthin/Wikimedia Commons


Published: 17 Sep 2016 10:41 GMT+02:00

The group of senior cabinet ministers, members of parliament and independent journalists, including Isak, were seized in a draconian purge on September 18, 2001 and the days that followed.
The government of Eritrea's authoritarian leader Issaias Afeworki has said those arrested were a threat to national security, and have never disclosed their whereabouts or state of health.
"Those arrested have been detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement," said Sheila Keetharuth, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea.
"Even family members have never been allowed to have any contact whatsoever with them," she said in a statement issued ahead of the 15th anniversary of the arrests.
They are all still being held in secret locations, although media reports indicate several may have died after being held for years in horrendous conditions.
Among those seized was Swedish-Eritrean journalist and author Dawit Isaak.
Despite efforts by Sweden, the EU and others to ensure his release or at least receive assurances that he is still alive, the diabetic journalist has been held incommunicado since then, accused of spying but never charged or sentenced.
Those arrested 15 years ago are not the only victims of rights abuses in Eritrea.
Keetharuth warned that "the 2001 clampdown set in motion a chain of egregious, widespread and systematic human rights violations that continues to this very day".
She listed arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, disappearances and torture among the continuing abuses.
Keetharuth served on a UN Commission of Inquiry that concluded earlier this year that Eritrean officials were guilty of "crimes against humanity". 

For more news from Sweden, join us onFacebookandTwitter.

By Abraham T. Zere / 16 September 2016

Scenes from Eritrea, photographs by Yonatan Tewelde

Scenes from Eritrea, photographs by Yonatan Tewelde

It initially sounded like a joke; gradually it got serious and then tragic. A decade and a half later, it is catastrophe.

Fifteen years ago on 18 September, 2001, fellow students of University of Asmara and I were confined in two labour camps, GelAlo and Wi’A, for defying a requirement of unpaid summer work. We were kept in the camps, under harsh, atrocious living conditions and open to the weather that normally reaches 45 C (113 F) for about five weeks. As we were preparing to return home, we learned the government had banned seven private newspapers and imprisoned11 top government officials.

The day after our homecoming, beaten down and demoralised, I went to meetAmanuel Asrat, chief editor of Zemen newspaper. About 10 days before that, he had received an article, in which I detailed our living conditions, that I had managed to get smuggled out of the prison camp. My piece was published in the last issue of the newspaper.

An atmosphere of fear pervaded Asmara. The environment had changed abruptly from heated and loud political debates to people resigning themselves to whispers and silence.

Unlike our previous meetings when Asrat greeted me with a joke, this time his dejection was obvious.

I do not remember exactly what we talked about, nor do I remember where we met. I assume Asrat must have expressed satisfaction about my safe return (as two students had died in the camp) and perhaps asked about my family. It’s possible we talked about the days before we had been sent to the prison camp. I do not know.

Yet, I remember vividly that we briefly talked about the letter I had sent him from the camp, and him explaining why he had published it anonymously. He didn’t want to incriminate me in its publication. Asrat also assured me that he had destroyed the original letter after publishing it.

What else do I remember from that encounter? Nothing substantial apart from him saying in a resigned tone, “Things are getting worse. It is inevitable we [the journalists] will also follow the political leaders [who had been imprisoned].”

At that point, we went our separate ways, probably hoping to meet some days later.

Before a second meeting with Asrat, I received the news of his and other journalists’ arrests. Even then, no one thought they would be held for more than a few days or weeks.

This is why journalistDawit Habtemichaelshowed up at his workplace the next morning — even after security had come to his home the previous day and hadn’t found him. He reasoned that they would arrest him and release him shortly thereafter, a common occurrence at the time. He arrived confidently at his office, prepared to be arrested. He probably felt that fleeing would be an act of betrayal to his colleagues and friends.

Contrary to expectations, both Habtemichael and Asrat have been kept incommunicado in secret prisons with 10 other journalists and 23 political figures for the last 15 years. The Eritrean authorities have never clarified their fates, but someallegedly leakedinformation by ananonymous whistleblowerindicates that only 15 of the total 35 prisoners are alive in the worst living conditions. The journalists who were incarcerated in connection with the press crackdown in 2001 are: Amanuel Asrat, Idris Said Aba’Are,Seyoum Tsehaye, Yousif Mohammed Ali, Said Abdelkadir, Medhanie Haile, Dawit Isaak, Dawit Habtemichael, Matheos Habteab, Fessaha “Joshua” Yohannes, Temesegen Ghebereyesus, and Sahle “Wedi-Itay” Tsegazeab. The leaked source allegedly states only five of the 12 were alive in deteriorating health conditions as of the beginning of this year.

So until the arrested journalists were transferred to an unknown prison outside the capital, many of us – and maybe even those who had been arrested – had high hopes that things would normalise and they would shortly be released from detention. Apart from the architects of repression, nobody guessed that the reign of terror and fear would last for 15 years – and continue to this day.

The culture of fear and hushed whispers gradually pervaded Eritrea until it became the nation’s signature reality. All roads began leading to dead ends. Silence and lack of cooperation became the only means of defiance that would not lead to arrest and imprisonment. The regime’s elimination of all independent media operating in the country conspired with a lack of public forums to effectively zombify Eritreans living inside the country.

Now it has reached a stage where failure to applaud unconditionally all actions taken by the government, no matter how irrational or arbitrary, can be considered as dissidence.

Over the last 15 years Eritreans have been pushed to the edge. Fear has been internalised. Nationals living inside the country are beaten down to docility and respond to orders and requirements without question. The country is plagued with harsh living conditions as a result of shortsighted policies, tattered institutions and a ragged social fabric characterised by mistrust.

Unlike 2001 when I was confident that the journalists would be released after a short time, in January 2015, I celebrated as miraculous the release of Radio Bana journalistsafter six yearsin prison without charges. Of course, I had no doubt they were all innocent, and the release of an earlier batch two years before confirmed this fact. Among them was a man who had been imprisoned for four years in place of another man who shared the same first name. In another nonsensical interrogation, related by one of the Radio Bana journalists who were released, authorities showed a print article as evidence of a broadcast allegedly aired by the opposition radio station.

No matter how long the Radio Bana journalists had stayed in prison or the sufferings they had gone through, their release was still big news to celebrate. Any release of political prisoners has been a rare occurrence in Eritrea, which is why many of us called the freed journalists to congratulate them. In a system that follows the perverted logic of “guilty until proven innocent,” it was important to celebrate their freedom  because no one can guess the irrational acts the regime repeatedly takes.

With the state media parroting ceaseless propaganda and hate-filled editorials, citizens have mastered a special skill: how to read between the lines. Most Eritreans do not listen to what the president says in his regular, repetitious interviews with the national media. Rather they read his gestures, listen to his tone and scan his appearance to get a feel for the state of the country. Many Eritreans check the media just long enough to determine whether he looks healthy or not.

This accumulation of fear, with a stifled media and ubiquitous censorship, has earned Eritrea the title of “most censored country in the world”, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. It also has placed it as the last country in World Press Freedom Index, as reported by Reporters Without Borders.


GENEVA (16 September 2016) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, today called on the Eritrean Government to urgently provide information on the whereabouts and state of health of senior government officials and independent journalists arrested on 18 September 2001 and in the following days.

Fifteen years ago, the Eritrean authorities arrested and detained a group of senior cabinet ministers, members of parliament and independent journalists without charge or trial. To date, the Government has refused to share any information on their whereabouts and state of health.

“The Eritrean Government has denied those arrested their fundamental right to liberty and security of the person, right not to be subjected to torture, right to a fair trial as well as right to freedom of expression and opinion,” Ms. Keetharuth said ahead of the anniversary on Sunday. “Those arrested have been detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement. Even family members have never been allowed to have any contact whatsoever with them.” 

“The 2001 clampdown set in motion a chain of egregious, widespread and systematic human rights violations that continues to this very day, including arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, denial of the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time, right not to be subjected to torture, and disappearances, among others,” the Special Rapporteur said. “In addition, the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well the right to freedom of the press has since then, also been negatively impacted.”

Earlier this year, the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea* –of which Ms. Keetharuth was also a member- concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed among others the crime of enforced disappearance, a crime against humanity.”

The Government of Eritrea said that the arrests and detentions of September 2001 were in response to national security threats posed by the prominent politicians and independent journalists. However, the expert stressed that “invoking national security as the main reason to violate basic fundamental human rights of Eritreans cannot be perpetual.”

“All those arrested in September 2001, as well as of all other detainees, including those arrested in the aftermath of the 2013 ‘Forto’ incident should either be brought to court or released unconditionally and immediately if not charged,” she said. “Furthermore, the Eritrean authorities should allow independent monitors to have unhindered access to all detainees in the country as a matter of priority.”
The Special Rapporteur recalled that Eritrea is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 2002, to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights since 1999 and to the Convention against Torture since 2014.

“However, it has consistently failed to give effect to their provisions guaranteeing universal fundamental human rights to its people,” Ms. Keetharuth noted. “It is time to reverse this trend and ensure accountability for past and ongoing crimes.”

(*) Check the Commission of Enquiry’s report:

Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea during the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012.  She took her functions on 1 November 2012 and was member of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) from June 2014 to June 2016.  As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity.  A lawyer from Mauritius, she has extensive experience in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, advocacy, training and litigation in human rights in Africa. Learn more, log on to:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Eritrea:

For press inquiries and additional information, please contact Ms. Françoise Mianda (+41 22 917 92 50 / ) or write to

For media inquiries related to other UN mandates:
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S bokade Eritreanska föreningens lokal

Thursday, 15 September 2016 20:46 Written by

Hanif Bali (M) kritiserar arrangemanget. Foto: Olle Sporrong

Hanif Bali (M) kritiserar arrangemanget. Foto: Olle Sporrong
Socialdemokraterna i Solna hade sin kickoff i en lokal som tillhör Eritreanska föreningen, som enligt kritiker stöttar regimen.

Nu får de kritik för sitt samarbete.

– Vi är väldigt tydliga med att vi är starkt kritiska till diktaturen i Eritrea, svarar Arne Öberg (S), oppositionsråd i Solna stad.



* Från 1889 var Eritrea en italiensk koloni, men efter andra världskriget blev det enligt ett FN-beslut en del av Etiopien. När etiopierna 1962 upphävde det självstyre som utlovats bröt ett befrielsekrig ut som varade i tre årtionden.

* År 1991 intog rebellgruppen EPLF huvudstaden Asmara. Eritreanerna kunde 1993 utropa sin egen stat, med stöd av en ny regering i Etiopien. 1998-2000 rasade ett gränskrig mellan de båda länderna. Konflikten har förblivit olöst.

* Makten är koncentrerad till president Isaias Afwerki och hans parti PFDJ.

* När organisationen Reportrar utan gränser listar pressfriheten i världen hamnar Eritrea på 180:e plats, efter Nordkorea.

* Amnesty pekar på att tusentals politiska fångar sitter fängslade, ofta utan vare sig åtal eller dom. Den svensk-eritreanske journalisten Dawit Isaak sitter fängslad i Eritrea sedan 2001.

* Befolkningen är ungefär jämnt fördelad mellan muslimer och kristna.

Källa: Nationalencyklopedin, Utrikespolitiska institutet

När Socialdemokraterna i Solna stad skulle ha partimöte den 5 september lånade partiet Eritreanska föreningens lokal. Maten som serverades hade föreningen lagat. Arrangemanget får stark kritik av riksdagsledamoten Hanif Bali (M).

– Föreningen är trogen regimen i Eritrea och fungerar som diktaturens förlängda arm, säger han.

Även Arhe Hamednaca, svensk-eritreansk regimkritisk riksdagsman (S), beskriver föreningen som regimvänlig.

– Föreningen har tidigare år fått bidrag från Solna stad som vilken förening som helst. Men det hade varit bra om man gjort research innan man bokat lokal. Det var en miss av mina kolleger som tar avstånd från regimen, säger han.




Seminar on The Importance of Rule of Law in a nation

Wednesday, 14 September 2016 20:30 Written by


Germany and Eritrea – friends again?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016 20:47 Written by

Eritrea is often in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Scores of young Eritreans have fled human rights abuses in their country. A recent high-level panel tried to charter new ways for an Eritrean-German dialogue.

Poster in Asmara reading - welcome to Eritrea. Next to it, a man standing alone

"To compare Eritrea with North Korea is the most inaccurate thing I have heard in my life. It is totally wrong," Uschi Eid, a seasoned politician and president of the German-African Foundation said.

Eid, a long-time observer of Eritrean politics, made the remark at the opening of a panel discussion on the current political and economic situation in Eritrea and the future of German–Eritrean relations. The discussion, co-hosted by DW, brought together Eritrean delegates, including Yemane Gebreab, head of the ruling (and only party) People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and a number of high ranking German officials, media professionals and representatives of NGOs working in Eritrea.

For some of the experts gathered in Berlin, the often-cited comparison between Eritrea and North Korea was not too far-fetched. Eritrea's clandestine foreign policy agenda, a forced military service, alleged human rights violations and ongoing cross-border skirmishes with arch-enemy Ethiopia, but mostly the exodus of young Eritreans applying for asylum in Germany, have set alarm bells ringing.

When it gained independence in 1993 Eritrea was paraded as a beacon of hope for Africa. But critics point to the fact that the Eritrean government has still not implemented the constitution drafted in 1997, thus setting the newly-independent country on a path towards the authoritarian, one-party state that it is today.

Eritrea Podiumsdiskussion Yemane Gebreab

Gebreab: "We want to build a political system that is suited to our own situation"

In response, Yemane Gebreab, Eritrea's head of political affairs and a close advisor to President Isaias Afewerkitold DWthat many African countries have dysfunctional multi-party systems and constitutions that only exist on paper. He argued that Eritrea is simply pursuing its own, unique governance approach.

National Service: 'a very important project'

On of the main reasons for young people to leave Eritrea is said to be its forced conscription to the military or "national" service, which can take 10 years or more. The country is listed among the world's top 10 source countries of migration. In late 2015, the Eritrean government pledged to shorten its national service to its original 18 months. One year later, very little has changed on the ground and youngsters continue to flee in droves.

Undeterred by the criticism, Gebreab told the Berlin panel that for the sake of nation-building and in the light of persistent threats from its neighbor Ethiopia, his country "should be commended" for its national service. He also said that it secured much-needed job opportunities for young people. It's a "very important project" and has "proved its value," he told DW later.

In an emotional challenge to Gebreab's argument, Almaz Zerai, a representative of the diaspora Network of Eritrean Women, said the reality on the ground totally contradicted the statements made by the Eritrean government. She said it was high time for them to "go out of the state of denial." The announcement of the government to increase the payment to conscripts holds little value for the activist: "They tell us that now that the salaries are increasing, the problem is going to be solved," she told DW. "No. It [should be] about letting the youth live their lives - to let them live free as they want to," she argued.

Eritrea Bisha Mine bei Asmara

Eritrea's Bisha Mine is supposed to be the first of four mines in the country

War economy

Eritrea today receives very little foreign assistance. Official development aid stood at $83.3 million (74 million euros) a year in 2014, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (DCD-DAC).

Although agriculture takes the first position as a driver of the GDP, the country is said to have huge natural resources, including gold, copper, zinc and potash. It currently has one new mine and three more are expected to be working by 2018. However, for Gebreab the current cash flow from mining "cannot even cover the bill."

To keep the economy afloat, cash-strapped Eritrea greatly depends on remittances sent home from exiled citizens around the world. It has been alleged that the government, desperate for money, turns a blind eye to the mass exodus in expectation of euros and dollars.

Where to go from here?

Eritrea Podiumsdiskussion Christoph Strässer

German MP Christoph Straesser says Germany needs guarantees that rights are respected

So where does that leave future relations between Germany and Eritrea?

The reported human rights violations have so far made German officials reluctant to engage publicly with Eritrea. "We cannot give development assistance to any country, be it Eritrea or any other, without any guarantees that political and civil rights will be respected," Christoph Straesser, a German MP and former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for a parliamentary group of the Social Democtrats (SPD) party, tells DW on the sidelines of the conference.

The recent EU decision to award an additional 200 million aid package to Eritrea to stem the wave of refugees has been questioned by many. Critics argue that the allocation of funds could result in strengthening the Eritrean government's muscle in silencing dissent, thus increasing the magnitude of the migration crisis.

Straesser, who led a group of German MPs on a recent fact-finding mission to Eritrea, asserted that the fund should be channeled to fight the cause of migration rather than supporting the regime.

Echoing his sentiments, the exiled campaigner Zerai told the panelists that pouring millions of dollars would not change anything unless the regime "diagnosed itself and was ready for treatment."

Georg Schmidt, the Foreign Affairs Office's Sub-Sahara representative, summed up the state of affairs: The Eritrean people have a "hunger for bread and a hunger for justice," he said. What this means for Germany's re-engagement with Eritrea is something that needs careful consideration.