ERITREA: How a New Nation’s Hopes and Expectations for Freedom and Democracy were Brutally Dashed

ERITREA: How a New Nation’s Hopes and Expectations for Freedom and Democracy were Brutally Dashed

Although the open letters of May and another one in August 2001, marked seminal moments, the decisive date was September 18th 2001.

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We can no longer escape the central question: how did a country, whose citizens fought so nobly over 30 years for justice, human rights and rule of law to be upheld, find itself forced against its own will into becoming one of the most repressed nations in recent history? To answer, Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) looks back at what happened 16 years ago.

Following the ‘golden years’ period from 1991 to 1997, prominent Eritreans had started to publicly address issues of reconciliation and openness within Eritrean society, following the most recent crisis at the time –  the border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000. Shortly after the cease-fire was signed in June 2000, a group of Eritrean academics and professionals recognised the flawed path on which their nation found itself and wrote the ‘Berlin Manifesto’ in October 2000, addressed to the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, who is to this day the chairman of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the sole ruling party.

In it they made various observations and suggestions, including warning of the dangers of abandoning collective participation. It is worth noting, they also critiqued the failure of other members of the Eritrean leadership for not objecting to negative practices that allowed one-man leadership.

Whether prompted by such criticisms, or because they believed they had kept quiet for long enough throughout the border war so as not to jeopardize national security, senior officials decided to act the following year. The fact that they chose to do so publicly suggests they had already attempted to resolve their differences internally. A seminal moment for Eritreans came in May 2001 when an open letter which, among other things called “for the rule of law and for justice, through peaceful and legal ways and means” was published. The letter was signed by 15 members of the Central Council of the PFDJ, forever to be known as the G-15. They wanted “people [to] participate in discussion and decisions of important national issues”. This group of 15 signatories included some of the highest-level actors, both during the struggle for Eritrean independence and as ministers and officials in the young nation.

Although the open letters of May and another one in August 2001, marked seminal moments, the decisive date was September 18th 2001. That summer had been one of fervent discussions and soul-searching for many within the country and in the diaspora. Prominent figures like Petros Solomon featured in interviews, speaking out in local independent newspapers and international media such as Voice of America. Many of the independent papers, some of which had wider circulation than the government printed newspaper, published articles which took a hard look at the issues and frankly expressed what they saw as shortfalls by the country’s leadership, and in particular the president. The journalists who wrote those articles and founded those newspapers were ex-fighters like Seyoum Tsehaye (the first director of the state-owned national TV channel) and independent journalists such as Fessahaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes. 

The Isaias Afwerki-led government had been committing human rights violations since the liberation of Eritrea in 1991, and before the border war with Ethiopia. The detention of veteran fighter Bitweded Abraha in October 1991, and the massacre of disabled veteran fighters in what would become the perennial justice issues may serve as examples. However, due to the growth spurt the country seemed to be undergoing, and perhaps due to the precariousness of Eritrea being a newly formed and weak country, these issues did not receive much public attention (not least because of the secretive culture that was carried over from the guerrilla fighting days). With the completion and ratification of the constitution in 1997, Eritreans expected a turn for the better, only to find each one of their rights being suspended by an imposition of martial law, actions which were supposedly justified by the unexpected border war. Some of those who helped draft the never-implemented constitution were among the signatories of the aforementioned ‘Berlin Manifesto’.

It was not a knee-jerk reaction, therefore, that saw 11 of the 15 signatories of the open letter suddenly imprisoned, as well as the closure of all independent media across the whole country on September 18th 2001; the arrest of 15 journalists of the independent media followed only two to three days later. Things had come to a head. The senior members of the PFDJ had spent years waiting for what they thought would be the right time to demand change, and brave journalists reflected the mood of Eritreans who followed developments in their country closely. If internal communications had now failed, could bringing the issues into the open (a practice much in line with the culture of traditional open assemblies) result in engagement and re-evaluation by the president whom many feared was on an authoritarian path? The unfortunate turn of history on that very same September day proved that this much hoped-for “opening up” was not to be.

September 18th 2001 was to mark the clear break with any pretence of respect for human rights, the rule of law, or democratic practices. Isaias Afwerki had made it clear that no criticism of his leadership would be tolerated. According to the current presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab, in an interview he gave in 2015, the former government officials and journalists were given a trial in secret in which they were accused of conspiring with the enemy during the border war. By his admission, they were not given due legal process or representation and are to this day kept incommunicado in secret prisons. An ex-guard, whom the director of HRCE, Elizabeth Chyrum, managed to interview, informed her of the horrendous conditions in which they are being held. Their numbers are dwindling due to suicides and very serious ill health directly caused by their appalling treatment.

Many more government officials and ordinary people deemed critical of Isaias Afwerki’s governance were imprisoned in the days and months following the closure of independent media. Recently we had a tragic reminder of the conditions and practices which have been normalised through violence in the last 16 years: Solomon Habtom was another prominent figure in Eritrea as a veteran fighter for independence and the Director General of Telecommunications. He was imprisoned in 2003 without trial and held incommunicado in Carchelli, a high-security prison in Asmara. While the cause of his death is still unknown, the body of Solomon was handed over to his family for burial 14 years after his death, on August 18th 2017. The apparent official expectation that Solomon’s family should be ‘thankful’ for at least receiving his body is a perversion of anyone’s sense of justice. Many other families of the estimated thousands of political prisoners who have been killed within the country have not even had that chance.

For most of the leading political prisoners and the independent media journalists, it has been 16 years of incommunicado imprisonment without due trial, and for some, such as Bitweded Abraha, it has been 26 years.
The country is now an open prison and is often likened to North Korea owing to its repressive practices and gross human rights violations. The president has remained the same since Eritrea’s independence in 1991 and his regime is now accused of crimes against humanity, recognised internationally for being one of the most repressive on free speech and independent media in the whole world. 

Within the country, the PFDJ’s regime continues to use the population as slaves through indefinite servitude and forced labour. The country’s resources, and thus a great part of the population’s source of future income, is being sold in illegitimate deals with foreign mining companies such as Nevsun and the profit made is unaccounted for. The numbers of people who flee the country risking their lives crossing the border continues to make Eritreans the second biggest group of refugees in Europe after Syrians. Problematically, recent developments in European policy are putting the lives of Eritreans in greater danger as they flee from persecution and seek refuge and sanctuary outside their home country. The Eritrean government is also known to be receiving financial support for various supposed “development projects” from the European Union.

Things need to change. HRCE calls on the Eritrean Government to release all prisoners of conscience without delay. HRCE also appeals to the international community at large to take note of the gross human rights violations and the crimes against humanity being committed within Eritrea and direct all their efforts to the support of the victims of such atrocities.

Eritrean Human Rights Concern