Long read: Eritreans wonder why their president is “making peace with everyone but the Eritrean people”

On the morning of 17 September, Eritrean security operatives arrested former Minister of Finance Berhane Abrehe in Asmara.  According to local reports, 73 year old Mr Abrehe was out having breakfast with his son when he was approached by security agents and instructed to accompany them.

The arrest followed the publication and launch of a two-volume book authored by Mr Abrehe entitled ‘Eritra Hageray’ (Eritrea My Country) in Washington DC. The book is described on the cover as presenting an Eritrean plan on how to end dictatorship and prevent it from happening again. The book received endorsements from several former Eritrean officials in exile, and were accompanied by an audio clip in which Mr Abrehe called, among other things, for the convening of the National Assembly and challenged President Afwerki to a public debate.

Mr Abrehe is currently in an unknown location.  He has been unwell for some time, and there are legitimate concerns for his wellbeing.  Mr Abrehe’s wife, Almaz Habtemariam, has been detained since early 2018, in reprisal for one of their four children fleeing the country.  Both he and his wife are veterans of the liberation struggle.

Eritrea’s human rights crisis remains acute

The timing of Mr Abrehe’s arrest is particularly striking, coming a day after the Eritrean and Ethiopian presidents signed a peace agreement in Saudi Arabia. Present at the signing were King Salman, Prince Mohammed bin Salman and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, among others, and the two presidents were awarded the Order of King Abdulaziz.

More significantly, the arrest occurred on the eve of the 17th anniversary of the enforced disappearance on 18 September 2001 of pro-reform officials, including parliamentarians, government ministers and ambassadors known as the G-11, and the subsequent  closure of independent media outlets and  jailing of journalists. Many are rumoured to have died due to the harsh conditions that were deliberately imposed on them.

Mr Abrehe’s arrest is perhaps the most visible indication that the human rights crisis in Eritrea, which risked being obscured by international enthusiasm for the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Eritrea’s renewal of relationships with Somalia and Djibouti, remains acute.

Little, if anything, appears to have changed for the Eritrean people, who are yet to hear details from their president about the agreements, accords and actions for which he is being feted internationally.

A local source informed CSW that “the big issue for people is that the president has said nothing to the public until now.  Why has he not spoken, even for five minutes?” Another wryly observed that the president was making peace with everyone except the Eritrean people.

While the thaw was preceded by human rights improvements in Ethiopia, Eritrea’s human rights record, which is among the worst in the world, remains the root cause of an exodus that has emptied the country of around 12 percent of its population.

Despite frequent articulations of imminent peace dividends, CSW was also informed that as hundreds  celebrated the reopening of the border on 11 September, many Eritrean youth were crossing into Ethiopia by every means possible, reportedly because they were unconvinced the border would remain open, and preferred to take their chances in Ethiopia rather than stay in Eritrea.

Even prior to Mr Abrehe’s arrest there were signs nothing had changed, particularly with regard to freedom of religion or belief.  Reports  of 400 Christians being released soon after the thaw began in earnest proved false.  In reality, 35 individuals were released who had signed a requisite undertaking to abandon their denominations around four years earlier, but who were only freed at that time.

On 19 July, the first Ethiopian Airlines flight in decades landed in Asmara carrying an assortment of individuals, including business people, family members separated by the hostilities between the two countries, and a well-known Ethiopian televangelist, who was photographed extensively, and was also filmed preaching on a pavement to an enthusiastic crowd to the bemusement of passers-by.

CSW has since learned that by late August, the Eritrean government had identified and arrested 48 people using video footage and photographs of the televangelist’s activities, and had even traced and detained car owners using the number plates on vehicles in the video.  Some of those detained were non-Christians who were merely passing by and stopped briefly to watch; others had the misfortune of being in the background of photographs featuring the televangelist at the airport. Arrests have continued, with reports emerging of the detention of 19 members of the Full Gospel Church in Godaif, Asmara, on 21 July, and of around 21 Christians at a gathering in Asmara on 20 August.

Religious Leaders Among Long-term Detainees

In another indication that nothing has changed, Patriarch Antonios, the legitimate leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EoC), has been under effective house arrest since January 2007, when he was removed from office in violation of Church canon in a series of officially sanctioned machinations.

On 16 July 2017, the patriarch was seen in public for the first time in over a decade. It is widely believed that his tightly-managed appearance at St Mary’s Cathedral in Asmara was aimed at convincing the international community that the human rights situation was improving, and more significantly, at convincing the Eritrean people that the division caused by the patriarch’s removal was over in order to pave the way for a pro-government successor.  A nonagenarian, the patriarch is said to be extremely unwell.  Church sources also report that he recently refused an offer that would have seen him reinstated, but as the fourth patriarch of the EoC.  In reality, Patriarch Antonios is the second patriarch of the EoC.  Had he agreed to the offer, he would have validated his uncanonical removal and legitimised his unrecognised replacement, the late Bishop Dioscoros.

There has also been no changes in the plight of six prominent Christian leaders who have been detained incommunicado for over a decade. Reverend Haile Naizge, chairman of the Full Gospel Church and Dr Kuflu Gebremeskel, chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance, were both detained in May 2004. Orthodox priests Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, Eritrea’s only psychiatrist, Dr Tekleab Menghisteab, a respected physician, and Reverend Gebremedhin Gebregiogis, an expert theologian, have been detained since November 2004. Finally, Reverend Kidane Weldou, Senior Pastor of the Full Gospel Church and a member of the Executive Committee of Gideons International, has been detained since March 2005.

Over 10,000 people of all faiths and none are estimated to be detained in over 300 detention facilities around the country. A CSW source remarked that “prisons are everywhere – in small villages even schools are also prisons.”

Sources have also confirmed that 345 church leaders and officials are currently imprisoned without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity range from 800 to over 1000. Moreover, there are 53 members of the Jehovah’s Witness movement in detention and an unknown number of Muslim detainees, some of whom were arrested following the unprecedented protests that erupted in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018 after the arrest and death in detention of respected elder and nonagenarian Haji Musa Mohammed Nur. Haji Musa had resisted government efforts to expropriate the Al Diaa Islamic private school and make it a secular establishment.

Detention occurs regularly, unexpectedly and without explanation.  Soon after the president’s first visit to Ethiopia, the owners of tankers that supply the city’s water were called for a meeting in Asmara, where they were all arrested.  No reason has been given for these arrests.  In the words of one of the young man who crossed into Ethiopia when the border opened officially: “how can you stay safely in a country where one old person can get angry with you for something one day and just imprison you?”

“How can you stay safely in a country where one old person can get angry with you for something one day and just imprison you?”

Countries consider returning Eritrean asylum seekers

Worryingly, several young people who crossed into Ethiopia report being informed, possibly in light of the rapprochement, that the country is no longer receiving Eritreans as refugees. Similarly, Israel, Switzerland and several other European countries appear to be weighing the possibilities of returning Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers.

In 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry determined there were reasonable grounds to believe the Eritrean government and its officials have committed crimes against humanity since 1991, and successive reports by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea have highlighted comprehensive and ongoing violations of the civil, political, economic,  social and cultural rights of Eritrean civilians.  Eritrea has consistently refused to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur, and in her fifth and final report to the Council in June, the Special Rapporteur concluded “there had been no meaningful progress to address specific human rights violations to report”.  In addition, Eritrea has not actioned any of the recommendations it accepted freely during two successive Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycles.

A seat at the table

Nevertheless, and no doubt buoyed by the euphoria surrounding the peace initiatives, Eritrea is on the verge of being elected to serve on the Human Rights Council, having been put forward by the Africa Group despite clearly failing to fulfil the criteria for membership stipulated by the General Assembly, which requires candidates to have contributed to ‘the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments’ and to ‘fully cooperate with the Council’.

Voting is by secret ballot with nominated states requiring a 97% vote.  In view of this, Human rights NGOs are urging member states to leave ballot boxes blank for candidates like Eritrea which fall far short of these requirements in a final attempt to prevent them from being in a position to undermine important human rights initiatives. However, the chances of success are slim.

Meanwhile the plight of the Eritrean people remains dire.  Those who remain continue to face all-encompassing repression and violations that include crimes against humanity.  Those who flee face an uncertain future in a world where populist sentiment and issues surrounding migration mean that safeguarding victims of human rights violations that may amount to atrocity crimes, is becoming increasingly less of a priority.

By Dr Khataza Gondwe, CSW’S Team leader for Africa and the Middle East and joint head of advocacy.