Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.
His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018. He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.
Yona urged UN Member States to prioritise justice and accountability, and to maintain pressure on the Eritrean regime until prisoners of conscience are free, and rule of law is established. He said, “A Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry found Eritrea’s regime has committed crimes against humanity. My family’s experience provides a glimpse of some [sic]. My Father and his colleagues suffered enforced disappearance for peacefully demanding justice and rule of law. I am from the Kunama minority, which suffers persecution. My mother suffered reprisal detention after I fled.”
Thousands of Eritreans of all faiths and none are currently imprisoned in horrific conditions without charge, trial or prospect of release. Unknown numbers have died in detention.
Every year, CSW joins with members of the Eritrean diaspora and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for a vigil outside the Eritrean embassy in protest at the continuing repression of freedom of religion or belief in the country. It’s now 16 years since the Eritrean government shut down worship centres of all but three Christian denominations and Sunni Islam, and began a campaign of mass arrests of members of proscribed Protestant denominations. Members of Eritrea’s various religious communities continue to be arbitrarily detained, including some from “permitted” faith communities, while at an international level, Eritrea not only remains indifferent to working with the United Nations to improve its human rights record, but also describes itself as paragon of interfaith harmony. During the most recent session of the UNHRC in March 2018, the Eritrean delegation did not even show up to the enhanced interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on Eritrea.
To experienced Eritrea watchers, this came as no surprise.
That’s why, we will again be taking to the streets.
Eritrea: A brief history
When Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 following a lengthy war, there were high hopes it would become a beacon of democracy and good governance for the African continent. However, a costly post-independence war with Ethiopia depleted the country’s resources, while the continuing tension caused by Ethiopia’s resistance to the demarcation of an internationally-agreed common border has provided a pretext for the excessive militarisation of society and the effective institution of a perpetual war footing.
“The succeeding years have been characterised by comprehensive, large- scale and egregious violations of the rights of Eritrean citizens by the regime and its agents, in contravention to its international obligations.”
Promised democratisation and elections have been deferred indefinitely in favour of rule by presidential decree, while the irrational fear on the part of the Eritrean government of any perceived threat to national unity has meant that the extensive rights enshrined within the unimplemented national constitution – drafted and ratified by the National Assembly in 1997 – remain disregarded by the very government that oversaw its creation.
The succeeding years have been characterised by comprehensive, large- scale and egregious violations of the rights of Eritrean citizens by the regime and its agents, in contravention to its international obligations. CSW has been monitoring and researching developments in Eritrea since 2002, including conducted yearly interviews with refugees and their community leaders in four nations. The findings are troubling.
Arbitrary detention: torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
Arbitrary detention is widely practiced. There are more than 300 sites across the country where torture occurs routinely. Prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, such as poorly ventilated metal shipping containers or underground cells, and in the open air in desert areas surrounded by barbed wire or thorns.
“Reports indicate that in every prison, beatings are administered routinely, systematically, frequently, and even casually on all prisoners, regardless of their creed or lack thereof.”
Reports indicate that in every prison, beatings are administered routinely, systematically, frequently, and even casually on all prisoners, regardless of their creed or lack thereof. These can range from a single blow to any convenient part of the body administered merely to attract the attention of a prisoner as an alternative to calling his or her name, to lengthy pummellings with fists, stampings with feet, and blows with an iron rod known as a shafshafa or with any other implement nearby. Beatings are administered without regard to the vital organs or, indeed, the life of a prisoner.
May 2017 saw a surge in detentions of Evangelical Christians as the Eritrean government launched a series of house to house raids in several cities. Among those detained was Fikadu Debesay, a mother of four. Fikadu, her husband and their 18 year old son were arrested at their home in Adi Quala, leaving their three other children – all of whom were minors – alone. While her son was taken to a labour camp, Fikadu and her husband were eventually held in a Metkel Abiet, a purposs-built desert camp situated between the towns of Gahtelai and Shieb in the Northern Red Sea Region, where condition were harsh. They were mistreated, deprived of adequate food, water, medical treatment and shelter, and were interrogated daily about church affairs. Fikadu’s health deteriorated in the appalling conditions, and she died in August on her way to hospital after an ambulance had been called belatedly. She was buried on 10 August and according to reports her body showed signs of mistreatment. Her son and husband were not informed of her death, and only learned of it when they were released and returned home months later.
Mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the first religious communities to be subjected to severe mistreatment. Obedience to doctrinal requirements meant they did not vote in Eritrea’s independence referendum in 1993. This, coupled with the announcement that they would participate only in non-military aspects of national service, in accordance with conscientious objection, put them further at odds with the ruling authorities.
In October 1994, a directive from President Isaias Afewerki effectively deprived Jehovah’s Witnesses of their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. They could no longer access government employment, accommodation, schools, hospitals or any other services generally available to Eritrean citizens. Perhaps most significantly, they were denied the official identity cards necessary for, among other things, registration of births, deaths and marriages, purchasing property, and gaining passports, internal and external travel permits, and commercial licences. In 1995, the Minister of Internal Affairs confirmed that by “JeJenrefusing to accept the government of Eritrea and the laws” Jehovah’s Witnesses had “lost their right to citizenship.” Those who had declined full military service were detained indefinitely, and those caught meeting secretly faced detention and harassment, including children and geriatrics.
“Arbitrary detention is widely practiced. There are more than 300 sites across the country where torture occurs routinely.”
CSW recently learnt that two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses have reportedly died in Mai Serwa Prison near the Eritrean capital, Asmara, after spending nearly a decade in detention. Both had been detained without charge or trial since 2008, after being arrested at their homes.
Mr Tesfamariam and Mr Mekonen were eventually transferred to the notorious Meitir Prison Camp, situated in the desert north of Asmara, where they were subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment: from October 2011 to August 2012, they men were held in a partially buried building along with other Jehovah’s Witnesses, where they suffered severely from heat during summer, and from a lack of sufficient food and water.
Then, in 2017, all the Jehovah’s Witnesses detained in Meitir Camp were transferred to Mai Serwa Prison, where they are permitted to receive food packages and access medical treatment when critically ill. However, neither Mr Tesfamariam nor Mr Mekonen recovered fully from their earlier mistreatment. 76 year-old Mr Tesfamariam died suddenly on 3 January 2018, and is believed to have suffered a stroke, while 77 year-old Mr Mekonen died on 6 March, reportedly due to kidney failure. They both leave behind wives and children.
Members of the country’s other religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, have also been subject to arbitrary detention, including Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, the nonagenarian Honorary President of Al Diaa Islamic School in Asmara. Haji Musa died in detention at Asmara’s 5th Police Station on Saturday 3 March 2018, where he had been held since his arrest in 2017. Following his burial hundreds were arrested, mainly males, and some as young as 13.
Haji Musa had opposed the government’s attempted expropriation of the Al Diaa private Islamic school, and resisted pressure for female students to stop wearing the hijab. On 31 October 2017, a rare protest against his arrest and government-imposed restrictions broke out in Asmara. It was dispersed by truncheon-wielding members of the security services firing live ammunition.
Join the protest:
Eritreans in Asmara took to the streets with such courage in 2017. Following their example, CSW together with Church in Chains Ireland, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Release Eritrea, the Medhanie Alem Eritrean Orthodox Church and the British Orthodox Church will be taking to the streets to protest against the continuing repression of freedom of religion or belief in Eritrea. We want the regime to know that we haven’t forgotten the prisoners of conscience suffering in prison camps and other detention centres.
Join us in person, or on social using the hashtag #freeEritrea.
When: Thursday 17 May, 3.30 – 4.30pm
Where: Opposite the Eritrean Embassy, 96 White Lion St, London N1 9PF
By Claire Denman, CSW’s United Nations Officer