Eritrea: Repression Creating Human
Eritrea's government is turning
the country into a giant prison
www.hrw.org/, April 16, 2009
Eritrea's extensive detention and torture
of its citizens and its policy of prolonged military conscription
are creating a human rights crisis and prompting increasing numbers
of Eritreans to flee the country, Human Rights Watch said in a
report released today.
The 95-page report, "Service for
Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea,"
documents serious human rights violations by the Eritrean government,
including arbitrary arrest, torture, appalling detention conditions,
forced labor, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement,
expression, and worship. It also analyzes the difficult situation
faced by Eritreans who succeed in escaping to other countries
such as Libya, Sudan, Egypt, and Italy.
"Eritrea's government is turning
the country into a giant prison," said Georgette Gagnon,
Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Eritrea should immediately
account for hundreds of 'disappeared' prisoners and open its jails
to independent scrutiny."
Human Rights Watch called on the United
States and European Union to coordinate with the UN and the African
Union to resolve regional tensions and ensure that development
aid to Eritrea is linked to progress on human rights.
The EU recently approved a ¤122
million assistance package to Eritrea despite concerns that development
projects in Eritrea are carried out by conscript or prison labor
in violation of international law.
Based on more than 50 interviews with
Eritrean victims and eyewitnesses of abuses in three countries,
the report describes how the Eritrean government uses a vast apparatus
of official and secret detention facilities to incarcerate thousands
of Eritreans without charge or trial. Many of the prisoners are
detained for their political or religious beliefs, others because
they tried to evade the indefinite national service or flee the
Torture, cruel and degrading treatment,
and forced labor are routine for conscripts as well as detainees.
Detention conditions are appalling, with detainees typically held
in overcrowded cells - sometimes underground - or in shipping
containers that reach searing temperatures by day and are freezing
Those who try to flee risk severe punishments
and the possibility of being shot while crossing the border. The
government also punishes the families of those who escape or desert
from national service with exorbitant fines or imprisonment. Despite
these severe measures, thousands of Eritreans are trying to escape
Most refugees first flee to neighboring
Ethiopia and Sudan, and then travel to Libya, Egypt, and Europe.
Hundreds of Eritreans have been forcibly repatriated from Libya,
Egypt, and Malta in the past few years and have faced detention
and torture upon their return.
Because of the risk of mistreatment faced
by those who are returned, the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees has advised against deporting anyone to Eritrea,
including rejected asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch called on
all countries hosting Eritrean asylum seekers not to forcibly
return them, given the risk of torture.
"Countries receiving Eritrean refugees
need to make sure that they get the protection and assistance
they need," said Gagnon. "Under no circumstances should
Eritreans be returned to Eritrea, where they face almost certain
detention and torture simply for having fled."
Eritreans celebrated when the country
gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody 30-year
war. But the government of President Isayas Afewerki, who led
Eritrea through much of its extraordinary struggle for independence,
has steadily restricted democratic freedoms, particularly since
a 2001 crackdown on political opposition and media.
Eritrea claims its prolonged mass mobilization
is justified by security concerns stemming from a two-year border
conflict with Ethiopia that cost tens of thousands of lives from
1998 to 2000. The government often blames the United States, the
United Nations, and African states for the current political impasse,
contending that they have failed to pressure Ethiopia to implement
the border demarcation decision of an independent UN commission,
which awarded a disputed area to Eritrea.
Eritrea has had tense relations or military
clashes with all of its neighbors at one point or another, and
the political stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia has contributed
to regional instability. Each government has supported armed opposition
groups against the other, and Eritrea's support for militant Islamist
groups in Somalia has exacerbated the conflict in that country.
"Eritrea's human rights crisis is
worsening and making the Horn of Africa ever more volatile,"
said Gagnon. "The US, European, and other governments need
to coordinate their policies on the Horn to defuse regional tensions,
and make human rights progress an essential benchmark for engagement