April 16, 2009

Part 2: Human Rights Violations

Overview

Eritrea is one of the world’s youngest countries and has rapidly become one of the most repressive. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom of worship, and much of the adult male and female population is conscripted into indefinite national service where they receive a token wage. Dissent is not tolerated. Any criticism or questioning of government policy is ruthlessly punished. Detention, torture, and forced labor await anyone who disagrees with the government, anyone who attempts to avoid military service or flee the country without permission, and anyone found practicing or suspected of practicing faiths the government does not sanction. A scholar, friend to and close observer of Eritrea over many years said, “Eritrea is now a very grim place. This is a government that doesn’t trust anybody, least of all its own people.”[74]

Some of the roots of this human rights catastrophe are to be found in the strict discipline of the independence struggle, Eritrea’s fragile regional security situation, and the government’s paranoid and totalitarian response to the situation. The government of Eritrea claims that Eritrea is a victim of international interference and that this explains the suspension of human rights and democratic procedures and the mass militarization of society. In reality most observers think this is President Isayas’s justification for a mode of governance characterized by mistrust, brutality, and presidential whim, in other words, a dictatorship based on denial of basic human rights. Dan Connell, a former supporter of the EPLF, noted, “With no public space for political discussion, let alone protest, and severe constraints on the organizational expression of the most benign social or economic interests—that is, the blanket suppression of civil society—the possibility to contest the PFDJ’s grip on power is nonexistent.”[75]

Like its predecessor the EPLF, the ruling PFDJ party is intensely disciplined and driven by the self-reliance and nationalism forged in the 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia, a struggle that succeeded against tremendous odds and with little support from the outside world. The common pattern in the government’s persecution is the perceived threat the victims pose to the PFDJ vision of national unity and national security. Thus, deserters and refugees are particularly singled out as “traitors” or spies, as too are journalists, academics, opposition politicians, and anyone who voices an opinion at variance with accepted propaganda. The regime’s preoccupation with non-traditional Christians, even though they are not politically significant, and increasingly many believers in other organized religions, appears to be rooted in a broader concern over institutions and movements that are potentially uncontrolled—or led by individuals who are not controlled—by the state.

There are also historical dimensions to the regime’s targeting of particular groups. Individuals who are particularly vulnerable include those perceived to be sympathetic to Ethiopia or supportive of the ELF—the rival independence movement crushed by Isayas’s EPLF in the 1970s. This perception on the part of the regime means that people living in the lowlands who originally provided support to the ELF—including Muslims and the Kunama ethnic group, among others—are seen as unreliable and are especially vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention, and other abuses.

Unlike earlier military mobilizations for the war of independence and the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, the current mass and indefinite mobilization of the population into national service—ostensibly in readiness for a potential Ethiopian invasion—is increasingly unpopular. The repressive apparatus required to keep so many unwilling people conscripted and mobilized is extensive: summary executions, brutal punishments, reprisals against families, and a huge prison infrastructure outside the rule of law in which acts of torture and cruel treatment are commonplace and committed with impunity. National service conscripts serve in the army, work on national development projects, or are loaned to private firms controlled by army officers and government allies for their gain. Compensation is minimal and non-compliance is not an option.

 

As a result of the multi-faceted repression, Eritreans are increasingly fleeing their country. It should be pointed out that most Eritreans leave with regret the very country that they fought for so long to liberate. Many do so with a deep sense of shame and guilt—some even blame themselves and suggested to Human Rights Watch that talking about human rights in Eritrea to a foreign organization was tantamount to treason. But as one elderly man who fought for the EPLF in the struggle said: “I sacrificed my life for the prosperity, development and freedom of my country but the reverse is true... we did not spend 65,000 martyrs for this!”[76]

Arbitrary Arrest, Detentions, and “Disappearances”

Eritrea routinely arbitrarily detains people who criticize the president, the government, and the military, those who try and evade national service or desert from the army, and those who practice or are perceived to be members of unregistered Christian religions. Once arrested, many detainees “disappear”—their families are unable to ascertain their whereabouts and are only occasionally informed if the individuals die in custody.[77]

Political detentions

The most famous cases of enforced disappearances are the members of the PFDJ ruling council who were arrested on September 18, 2001—the so-called G-15—and the hundreds of other government officials and journalists who were detained alongside them. Eleven of the G-15 are still in incommunicado detention.[78]Dozens more have been detained since.[79]The level of paranoia on the part of the government has reached such a level that, according to one diplomat in Asmara, “people who present no risk to the security of the state are regularly persecuted.”[80]

Those perceived to be a threat to the regime are picked up in house-to-house searches, often at night. Two young refugees described to Human Rights Watch their experience seeing their parents arrested at home during the night by soldiers without any apparent reason.[81]A 26-year-old, serving in the military, having been conscripted at the age of 16, returned home on leave to find that his father had been arrested and taken away by military personnel during the night, apparently for asking questions about the G-15. His father was a leader from the lowlands, near the border with Ethiopia, and had not fled when the Ethiopians controlled his area during the 1998-2000 war. When he himself persisted in questioning his father’s whereabouts, he was jailed in 2005.[82]

In another case, a young man saw his father, a former ELF military leader, taken from their home at night in 2005 by two policemen. He told Human Rights Watch, “After two weeks my mum and I went to the police. They told us, ‘It is not your goddamn business,’ not in a polite way. My father was always disagreeing with [the government] in meetings.”[83]Two months later his father’s body was returned. “They said he had been sick in prison. My mother knows the officers; she was asking among them how he died. I think she asked too many questions because then they came back and arrested me and my mum at night.” He added, “Until now I don’t know where they took my mum. After five months in jail I went to the military prison in Sawa, 6th camp.”

Detention of national and military service conscripts

Deserting from the army or even expressing dissent over the indefinite military service is viewed as a political issue by the government. Therefore, most prisoners held for political reasons are detained without charge or trial for refusing or questioning national service or for offences punishable under military law. Even where detainees may have committed a potential crime under military law, numerous former detainees told Human Rights Watch that there was no system of military justice, that they were simply imprisoned on the orders of their commanders without any courts-martial or other procedure.[84]

Human Rights Watch spoke to over 40 deserters from the national service and the military who had fled the country, all of whom had been thrown in jail multiple times without due process.[85] Their alleged offences ranged from questioning the educational curriculum to being caught in prayer meetings to being suspected of trying to leave national service.

An officer in charge of a military prison who subsequently fled to Djibouti explained that sentencing was completely arbitrary and commanders decide how long people remain in jail. Whether or not the sick are given access to medical treatment is left to the caprice of their superior officers: “There were no rules from Asmara on how long prisoners stay in jail, it depends on individual commanders. Prisoners can be detained up to two years. If someone is sick they usually don’t believe him, he might be trying to escape or does not want to be punished.”[86]

One teacher at Mai Nehfi technical institute said he was jailed for three months because his military supervisors suspected him of trying to flee the country. He described how he was detained and tortured, repeatedly asked questions about who his collaborators were, even though he did not in fact plan on escaping. He later escaped after serving a longer period in jail for having signed a petition complaining about the treatment of higher education students.[87]

A young man who could not take the punishing regime of training and forced labor at Sawa camp tried to kill himself by throwing himself under a water truck. For that, he was imprisoned for six months.[88]

A military driver who was detained multiple times said, “I was detained so many times because I was late coming back from vacation, sometimes I refused when they ordered me to transport something in a bad place... prison, punishment, this is the life of the military.”[89]Another national service soldier was jailed because he too refused to do his job and spent eight months in jail without a hearing as a result:

There’s no trial in Eritrea. There’s no trial, there’s not even any court.... Imagine, 14 years of national service... first they put me in prison without asking any questions. After six months they said ‘Start your work’ and I refused. The response is to send me back to prison. [On release] they gave me a piece of paper and I went to my camp freely. I was tired. They said, rest for three or four days and then start your work. I said ‘No’ and they put me inside for [another] two months.[90]

Detention of conscripts who try to practice unregistered religions is common. Several people who escaped from their military service told Human Rights Watch that they were arbitrarily thrown in jail for secretly reading the Bible in Sawa camp or being caught in prayer meetings.[91] A female conscript, jailed at least three times, was held in a shipping container for three months in 2007 for reading the Bible.[92]Another conscript, a man who was put in jail after a prayer meeting, was just as suddenly released: “After five months and three weeks they just dropped me, with no procedure or decision, on the streets of Asmara, at midnight.”[93]

Because of the secrecy in which political detainees are held—incommunicado, in secret locations, without the right to representation or visits, and without any kind of independent monitoring—they are in effect, “disappeared” and are at high risk of torture or extrajudicial execution.

Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment

The internationally accepted definition of torture includes any act that involves the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering for such purposes as the extraction of information or a confession or as intimidation or punishment.[94]Torture is routine in Eritrea, both for those detained in prisons and as punishment for those in military service.

Political prisoners, including journalists or teachers, interviewed by Human Rights Watch described torture in custody to force them to disclose collaborators, whilst those punished for their religious beliefs described being tortured in order to renounce their faith. In many cases former detainees were beaten or tortured in order to extract information, but in other situations they were simply beaten, tied up, or left to suffer in the sun without any obvious intention to gather information, simply as punishment.

According to eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch, torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment by military officers and commanders are systematic and “normal.”[95] While some form of discipline or punishment for insubordination or for military crimes such as desertion is usual in a military context, torture is unlawful in any circumstance. In Eritrea, deaths in custody are common as a result of ill-treatment, torture, and denial of medical treatment (see below section “Deaths in Custody”). Some deaths appear to be deliberate killings.

 

Torture methods

Some of the torture methods are inherited from the Italian period, whilst others are the methods used by successive Ethiopian governments against suspected Eritrean liberation fighters during the struggle. All of the torture methods described in this report are drawn from victim and eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch in 2008, from individuals who were interviewed independently in different locations, and with different translators. The methods described below correspond closely to the findings of Amnesty International in 2004 but this is not a comprehensive list.[96]

“Helicopter”: the victim’s hands and feet are tied together behind the back, sometimes opposite limbs, i.e. left hand to right foot, and the victim is left face down, often outside in the hot sun. Detainees described seeing this procedure in most of the prisons mentioned in this report, in particular in Alla prison.[97]

 

“Otto” or eight: Otto, meaning eight in Italian, is a punishment where the hands are tied together behind the back and victims must lie on their stomachs. This was the most common torture method noted by former conscripts and detainees, practiced in all the prisons and in Wi’a and Sawa military camps.

One man interviewed by Human Rights Watch said he was tied for two weeks in the otto position, even when he slept, because he tried to escape from Wi’a training camp.[98] A soldier deployed to Assab on the coast refused an order and was tortured by being tied in the otto position: “My leader ordered me to go into the sea and I refused because I have problems in my left ear. I was punished with otto for four hours. Four hours of otto in Assab is very bad because it’s so hot,” he said.[99]

“Ferro”: Ferro is an Italian word for iron. The method is similar to otto described above except that the wrists are bound with handcuffs. The prisoner may also be left in the sun.

According to a former army officer detained in Alla, ferro was often the punishment for those suspected of trying to escape from the army. “If someone is suspected of escaping then they are tied up—just hands or hands and feet, or ferro, he said. “Individuals decide what kind of punishment is given, there’s no law. They do not have any crimes but [people are punished because] they hate the military or hate to be a soldier. That is the main reason. Because everyone in Eritrea hates to be in the army.”[100]

“Jesus Christ”: As the name suggests, the victim is crucified by being tied with rope to a tree or a cross and then left to hang, and sometimes beaten while hung.

A conscript who answered back and then struck his commanding officer described being punished in this way:

My leader [of the unit] ordered me to make charcoal that he wanted to take home to his family. But I told him, I am in training, this is not my job, so I told him ‘No.’ He hit me. I said he cannot hit me so I hit him also...That captain together with other leaders beat me. I still have the scars on my head [he has visible wide scars on his head and neck]. They tied me in a crucifix style to a tree, with my hands behind me, for two hours at a stretch, off the ground. We call it a cross—the hands are tied to wood and you are hanging in the air. They left me to sleep outside [on the ground] while tied up. It was hot. I got one cup of water for half a day and bread. They asked me no questions during punishment, there were many other people punished at the same time. Every day people were getting different punishments. In front of everyone, with them all watching.[101]

 

“Goma”: Goma is a method involving a radial truck tire. The victim is forced to double up inside a tire for long periods of time.

A conscript who was caught fleeing towards the border in 2005 and imprisoned in Prima military camp was suspected of links to the Ethiopian-backed opposition to the Eritrean government because his mother was Ethiopian. He suffered this form of torture:

...[T]he worst is when they put you inside a tire [goma]. You are tied inside the circle of the tire and they [beat you with a stick and] ask who is supporting you [in Asmara], who guided you, what kind of program did you have in Ethiopia... Another way to make you suffer is to tie the hands behind your back, sometimes the legs as well. This is called otto, then you are tied to a tree and punished by hanging from a tree. There are those who died from punishment but I was fortunate. Twice they punished me by goma. They use a Ural truck tire. I was rolled in the tire for six hours... Luckily I am not fat. The fat man suffers even more.[102]

Mock drowning: Called by many different names around the world, in Eritrea this method of torture involves submerging a person’s head in water so that s/he believes s/he will drown and was originally used by the Derg in Eritrea.

A man described to Human Rights Watch his experience in Alla military prison of being put in a barrel head first, upside down and forced to answer questions after he had tried to run away from the army four times:

They hit me everywhere in every prison—on the head, on the feet—sometimes the body swelled. The first time they hit you is when they catch you—they hit me—and after two months my body became weak. They put me in a barrel of water, with the head under water and the legs out. They beat people with electric wire in the barrel of water. After three days when the inspector came and if you didn’t accept or respond to his questions then you’d be punished like this. I was interrogated with questions like: ‘Who is helping you?’; ‘How did you get around without permission?’; ‘How did you reach the border?’; ‘Who had the master plan?’; ‘Who was your guide?’; ‘Are you a soldier?’ I was in the barrel five times.[103]

Beating: Beating is commonplace to the point of “normality” and is often preceded or followed by other torture methods. Nearly every former detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch described regular beatings, often daily, severe, and resulting in lasting physical damage.

Helen Berhane, a famous Eritrean Christian gospel singer was beaten whilst in detention and warned to renounce her faith. She was eventually released and sought asylum in Denmark but her legs were severely injured as a result of the beatings.[104]

Another conscript who tried to escape described being beaten by intelligence officials: “When I was captured they beat me badly. After three months of beatings they started asking: ‘Whose idea was it to go?’ That was the main reason for the beating. When they are beating people they divide you into three groups: those they believe, those they don’t believe, those they are preparing to beat.”[105]

Another former conscript and detainee told Human Rights Watch he now has problems with incontinence as a result of the beating he received in detention. He said, “Beatings were like food in prison—every day.”[106]

There are myriad ways in which military superiors torture subordinates or try and scare them from escaping military service. One of the most egregious accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch concerned unsuccessful deserters from Sawa camp being tied to a corpse. A witness said: “One had been shot running away, the other two had their hands tied to the feet of the dead person. They were paraded round the camp in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck. The intention was for everyone to see.”[107]

Many political prisoners have suffered the full gamut of torture methods. One government journalist who was arrested and detained in 2004 because of an article he had written raising questions of government policy was punished first in a police station in Asmara before being sent to Dahlak prison—a facility on an island in the Red Sea exclusively for political prisoners (see Prison Conditions below).

I was questioned in police station 6 in Asmara. There are different types of interrogation: physical and psychological. The first step is asking questions if I had a hand in the G-15. Then they change methods, try to get the truth by force. There is a big fence in the back of the 6th police station, with a tree—they tie you up, then throw you down on the ground, again and again. They tie you up in the number eight position. Everybody will taste these kinds of punishment, it is normal, like flu... Before I went to Dahlak I was hung up like Christ for 24 hours. Then after 24 hours I was thrown on the ground and they put milk and sugar on your face and the flies come and eat your face.[108]

Prison Conditions

The prison infrastructure

The total number of prisons in Eritrea is a mystery. Eritrea has a formidable network of detention facilities, some of which are well known, and others secret, some authorized, and others not. Many, if not most political prisoners and those detained for trying to flee the country or for practicing “illegal” religions are held incommunicado in appalling conditions, often underground or in metal shipping containers (see below).

Keeping track of all the detention facilities is extremely difficult because each town and administrative district in Eritrea has a jail; wherever there is a police post is a cell; and each military division has its own prison. In addition, there are secret facilities about which many rumors exist, such as Eiraeiro, where members of the G-15 are thought to be held.

There is a distinction between the kind of treatment in civilian and military prisons, with the latter reported to be worse than the former. As a former officer in charge of a military facility explained, in the military:

Each operation has its own prisons and security and each level of operations has its own prisons. There’s the headquarters prison at operational level, then a division central prison, brigade prisons, battalion prisons...for nine divisions there may be more than 50 prisons. Inside Moasher [military intelligence] there are many prisons. The officer training center has its own prison. When travelling from town to town there are ID checks called kella. Three quarters of these checkpoints also have prisons underground.... For civilians, there’s a high court and ministry of justice in every town. There is a justice and law for civilians. Political prisoners tend to be held at [...] Dahlak, Nakhura Island, and Alla.[109]

One of the most notorious prisons is on Dahlak Kebir island in the Red Sea—a huge jail of iron sheet buildings and shipping containers holding refugees returned from Malta in 2002, journalists, army deserters, and opposition members.

Other prisons frequently mentioned by former detainees were underground military facilities at Track B (also sometimes called Tract B), a former US storage facility near Asmara airport, Adderser, Haddis Ma’asker near Sawa and the Sudanese border in western Eritrea, Mai Serwa, and Enda Shadushay (6th camp), located inside Camp Sawa. All of these hold a similar mix of army deserters, Evangelical Christians, and other political prisoners.

Many former detainees mentioned passing through Adi Abeto—one of the main prisons outside Asmara—on their way to other places. They stated that sometimes there are over 1,000 prisoners detained there.[110]Other prisons are built specifically next to construction sites to house prisoners who are used for forced labor. Detainees described building prisons and then building military facilities or properties for military leaders at Gedem on the coast, Haddis Ma’askar, and Me’eter.[111]

There are also special places for interrogation such as Alla 17, mentioned by the former intelligence official, and 6th police station in Asmara where several interviewees described being interrogated and tortured.[112]

A list of detention facilities known to Human Rights Watch is included in Annex 1 on page 94.

Conditions in detention

Apart from torture and routine punishment, detainees in Eritrea’s huge network of prisons endure terrible conditions, forced labor, and lethal starvation. With the exception of Ethiopian prisoners of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross is not permitted to visit Eritrea’s military or civilian detention facilities. The government appears completely unconcerned about detention conditions and the fate of the people in its custody. Deaths in custody are common. Prison guards are often demoralized and appalled by what they are asked to do—some of them reportedly escape along with the inmates.

Horrendous descriptions of conditions in many of Eritrea’s different prisons have been widely documented by various nongovernmental organizations in recent years.[113]Many detainees are kept in metal shipping containers or in underground pits in overcrowded and dangerously hot conditions for months at a time.[114]

Dahlak prison, located on Dahlak Kebir island in the Red Sea, is one of the most infamous detention facilities in the country, thought to be one of the primary places for long-term detention of political prisoners including those involuntarily repatriated to Eritrea by other countries. Human Rights Watch spoke to several people who had spent more than two years there. Hundreds of prisoners are kept in cells made of zinc sheeting or underground, among them those who had been forcefully returned from Malta in 2002.[115] In either place they described temperatures regularly over 104°F (40°C), and were provided with only 750 milliliters of water a day.[116]

As with all Eritrean prisons, the detention is arbitrary: “In Dahlak there is no time limit,” a former detainee told Human Rights Watch. “You are waiting for two things: either someone is coming to transfer you or to kill you.”[117] This political prisoner, who was eventually released, recalled, “When I left Dahlak I was 44 kilograms. My hemoglobin was nothing. I needed a stick to walk. We were living underground, the temperature was 44°C; it was unbelievable. There is no word to express the inhumanity.”[118]

A man detained in a facility called Halhalas, a sub-provincial prison 45 kilometers from Asmara, said, “How can I describe...it is so bad. We got 300 grams of bread per day, one bread per mealtime, there was no washing. We were taken to the river maybe once a month, surrounded by military, for five minutes in the river.” Compared to reports from Alla prison, where former inmates said they were given one piece of bread per day, this was good.[119]Detainees described poor nutrition and starvation rations in most facilities. A man detained in Asmara’s Track B prison for a day before he was transferred said he received a single biscuit.[120] Others told Human Rights Watch they received one cup of water a day despite hot and overcrowded conditions.[121]

Everyone interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had spent time in detention in Eritrea’s prisons complained of overcrowding. It is such that there is a name for the style of sleeping in detention. “‘Cortielo’ means we were sleeping on our sides—you couldn’t move or change sides or you would wake up your neighbors,” said one former detainee.[122]Similar conditions were reported in Alla and in Prima military camp.[123] A former prisoner described the zinc cell where he was held in Sawa camp as two meters by three meters with 25 to 30 people in it. Later he was moved to Me’eter, another military prison, because the new military camp there needed lots of labor. There, he said, “We were forced to build bridges and a military compound.”[124]A man held in Haddis Ma’asker said, “It was very crowded with no place to sleep. You’re always breathing the smell of other people and most people are sweating because it’s hot. The smell becomes toxic.”[125]

Underground

Detaining people underground appears to be a typical practice of the Eritrean government—much of the liberation struggle was fought from underground bunkers, some of which, it appears, have now become jails for the some of the very people who fought for freedom. Underground facilities were reported at Sawa, Track B, Mai Serwa, Haddis Ma’asker, Aderser, Alla, and Dahlak, among others. There are multiple prisons in Camp Sawa, including several underground cells. One former inmate described “a big hole with trees across the top and then earth on top. They don’t allow you to come out—even for six months. People got those allergies and became sick. I was okay. But some were scratching their skin and bleeding.”[126]

One young conscript who was detained in an underground prison near Wi’a camp met around 30 members of the former Ethiopian Derg regime there who had been held since the war of liberation against Ethiopia ended in 1991—up to 17 years. They had no idea how long they had been there, they had no idea if their children were alive and grown up or dead. The first thing they asked the new arrival was whether he had a razor blade so they could kill themselves. “Their crime was to be in the Derg,” said the young conscript.[127]

 

Shipping Containers

According to former detainees, shipping containers are frequently used as detention facilities in Sawa, Mai Serwa, Dahlak, and Klima, near Assab. Shipping containers were apparently first used to incarcerate people because of a shortage of detention facilities.[128]

Several national service conscripts interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being held in metal shipping containers in Sawa camp. One of them who was taken there after both his parents had been arbitrarily detained (they were former ELF leaders who had then joined the EPLF) recalled: “There were seven or eight containers, you know for bringing goods from outside. They had cut doors in them made of steel. They put me there because they called me a political prisoner because of my parents. The conditions were cruel, they beat you with a flex, a wire, they beat everyone, every night. They want to make us afraid, just enough beating not to die and not to live.”[129]

One female soldier was held with 14 other women for 24 hours a day, some of whom had refused to have sexual relations with their commanding officers. The only time they were allowed outside was to go to the toilet, “They can hold them there as long as they want, there’s no fixed time,” she said.[130]Helen Berhane, the gospel singer, was held with up to 24 other women in a shipping container for part of the two years she spent in detention in Mai Serwa prison, in unbearable heat.[131]

Extrajudicial Killings and Deaths in Custody

Diaspora websites are full of long lists of “disappeared” individuals, some of whom are believed to have died or been extrajudicially killed in government custody.[132]The accounts of those who have fled the country or escaped from detention are replete with descriptions of people shot whilst trying to escape from national service or whilst trying to cross the border and others who have died in custody from the terrible conditions.[133]

Shot while trying to escape

Dozens of refugees who had escaped from prison or from military service described being shot at without warning while fleeing.[134] In many of these cases the prisoners were clearly unarmed and posed little or no threat to their guards. One man interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how he and his fellow inmates in a container in Sawa camp escaped: “We ran in all directions. After you jump the wall there is barbed wire, more than six feet high. I pulled the wire apart and some soldiers opened fire. I saw three people shot, two on the left and one on the right. I could not help them because the situation does not allow you to help your friend.”[135]

One witness saw two men shot dead trying to escape from Me’eter prison in 2006.[136]Another escaped when all of the people in his work gang decided to run from their armed guards at the same time. “We used to go out to work, loading and unloading grain and other goods, salt, sugar... We broke out of prison when we went out for work. We figured we might get shot at but some would escape.”[137]

Shot for trying to flee Eritrea

Human Rights Watch were told by a number of sources that there is an official “shoot-to-kill” policy in operation against all those trying to cross the border. A former officer in exile told Human Rights Watch that such an order was in effect: “Now the law is killing people for crossing the border. The law changed one year ago.”[138] Another more senior officer, specified: “There was a circular. There has been such a large number of people [crossing] that there was an announcement that anyone who crosses the border will be shot. Whoever tries to cross will be killed immediately and repeat offenders are also killed... those who escape again and again will be shot [even if they are not trying to cross borders]. This was issued by the Ministry of Defense in April 200[7].”[139]

A former intelligence officer described to Human Rights Watch the execution of two men, a soldier and a university student, who he stated were detained and then shot at Alla 17 prison for intending to flee the country.[140]

Deaths in custody

Survivors told Human Rights Watch that many people died in custody from sickness, heat stroke, or from beatings. According to Reporters sans frontières, three of the journalists arrested in the crackdown in 2001 died in custody between 2005 and 2006, a fourth died in January 2007.[141]

The survivors of Dahlak consider themselves to be lucky. As one former inmate said, “In Dahlak, every day someone died. The food was very little and there was no medical attention. No one cares for prisoners. While I was there about 25 percent died from lack of medication and the bad conditions.”[142]

Another man imprisoned in Dahlak said, “People were dying and getting sick and crazy. My group was detained the longest but there were others there who had been returned from Malta, Libya. In 2005 many prisoners were dying because of the heat and overcrowding, so they transferred some of us to Gedem. It was the hot season and we were dying of hunger, plus the brutal beating of the guards was causing many people to die. There were 10 dead in my block.”[143]

In Addenafas prison, near Assab, one witness told of two inmates who died in a cell holding 13 Christians. Two of them became ill but “there were no medical facilities and the nutrition was bad. This was 2006, the deaths.”[144]

At the military camp in Me’eter, “the sleeping was better but there was another problem because we were forced to urinate in corner of the cell, where we were sleeping. Many people got cholera, two in my cell died.”[145] And in the container in Sawa camp, “there are 20 people in a container, it is very hot. One died of heat, one died of sickness in my container.”[146]

In one military camp, Prima, an inmate was detained alongside three people accused of co-operating with the Democracy Movement of Eritrea (DemHaE )[147]who he described as dying as a result of torture in custody: Asmourom Kifle, Tama Kefelay, and Awat Habtezgee. He described seeing Awat, “bleeding from the nose and mouth. Every time they were being hit and finally they died. I was listening to the sound but I didn’t see it... It was hard hitting with a stick or wire on the head and everywhere. They sent Awat to the hospital and he died there.”[148]

A sergeant who had fled to Djibouti and formerly had responsibility for supervising a prison, told Human Rights Watch, “They don’t inform families directly or indirectly if a soldier dies in prison. It doesn’t matter if the death is from disease or hitting, [the soldier is] still a “martyr.” No investigation is made, or questions asked.”[149]

 

Indefinite Forced Conscription

Enforced indefinite national service is an increasingly important element of Eritrea’s human rights crisis. Conscripts undergo military training, in itself not illegal. However, they are subjected to cruel military punishments and torture, already described above. Many may be deployed in what constitutes illegal forced labor. Those who try and evade national service are treated cruelly. Evaders are detained in terrible conditions, and heavy penalties are imposed on the families of those who evade service or flee the country.

Eritrea’s success in its 30-year armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia was due in some measure to extraordinary discipline on the part of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the effective mobilization of the whole adult population in the service of the liberation war effort.[150] Since the border war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, however, increasing numbers of Eritreans—especially youth—voice frustration with the continuing military mobilization and the fact that the democratic transition has been shelved, along with the population’s human rights.

An officer who fled the country told Human Rights Watch: “In the first war the Eritrean people were coming by themselves [volunteering] to the army and the hope then was to return quickly to civilian life. Then the Ethiopian offensive into Eritrea made all the Eritrean people rise up. But now the reality has changed... Everyone is in national service.”[151]One young man who had recently fled Eritrea told Human Right Watch, “It’s okay to do national service, it’s fair to serve one’s country but not always. It’s not fair when it’s indefinite.”[152]

After peace in 1991 and independence in 1993, the new government formalized its commitment to national service in a 1995 proclamation.[153]According to that proclamation, the objectives of national service are:

The establishment of a strong defence force based on the people to ensure a free and sovereign Eritrea;
 
To preserve and entrust future generations [with] the courage, resoluteness [and] heroic episodes shown by our people in the past thirty years;
 
Create a new generation characterized by love of work, discipline, ready to participate and serve in the reconstruction of the nation;
 
To develop and enforce the economy of the nation by investing in development work our people as a potential wealth;
 
To develop professional capacity and physical fitness by giving regular military training and continuous practice to participants in Training Centers;
 
To foster national unity among our people by eliminating sub-national feelings.[154]

The law states that all Eritrean citizens, men and women between the ages of 18 and 50, have the obligation to perform national service. In normal circumstances, national service is supposed to last 18 months (article 8). This consists of six months military training and 12 months deployment either on military duties or some other national development project. However, article 13 (2) states that even after completing the compulsory 18 months, national service can be extended until 50 years of age “under mobilization or emergency situation directives given by the government.”[155]

During the first four rounds of the national service, those who were called up were demobilized after 18 months, but after war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998, everything changed. Former fighters were called up again, reservists who had been demobilized were conscripted, and all national service recruits were retained under emergency directives.

Although the war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, in May 2002 the government introduced the Warsai Yekalo Development Campaign (WYDC), a proclamation that indefinitely extended national service. The government had promised to demobilize thousands of conscripts after the war, and did demobilize some, but by 2007 it reportedly suspended the demobilization program.[156]The WYDC was a national effort in which the generation that had fought for independence would join with new recruits to build the nation. In effect, it meant the forced conscription of every adult male up to the age of 50, although some refugees claim 55 is now the upper limit, with other sources claiming up to 57 for men and 47 for women.[157]

Not all national service is military service, since many conscripts are not deployed in the army but on civilian development projects, or are assigned to commercial enterprises with their salary paid to the Ministry of Defense.[158] However, the Ministry of Defense is in control of the national service program and if someone working on a construction project were to abscond they are still be regarded as a deserter under military law.[159]

Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch emphasized that there was no difference between military and civilian national service—conscripts are equally at the mercy of the state.[160] One Eritrean academic notes that, “What people do not realise is that in Eritrea, there is no military service. There is only Hagerawi Agelglot (National Service) which is much more ambitious and broader than common Military Service.”[161] Military duties are only one of a number of different assignments that conscripts can be tasked with, although it is the most common.

At the time of writing, most of the able-bodied adult population is on active, indefinite, compulsory national service or on reserve duty. The only exceptions are on health grounds, or, for women, pregnancy.[162] In discussions with visiting members of the European Parliament, Eritrean government officials, “admitted that military service, although formally to last 18 months, often extends over decades, reducing both the active workforce and the individual freedom and choices of the citizens.”[163]

Eritrea has also used its conscription policy to harass and detain UN and NGO staff, purportedly on the grounds that they have not fulfilled their national service obligations.[164] In 2005, seven Eritrean UNMEE staff were under arrest[165] and the number rose to 27 in early 2006,[166] some of whom were later released.[167]

For a country to enforce conscription laws may not be a violation of human rights. However, the way this is done in Eritrea—the violent methods used, the lack of any right to conscientious objection, and the lack of any mechanism to enable a challenge to the arbitrary enforcement of conscription constitutes abuse. Furthermore, although national service and conscription at times of genuine national emergency may be permitted as a limited exception to the prohibition on forced labor, the indefinite nature of national service in Eritrea, the threat of penalty (and collective punishment of families of those who desert), the use of recruits for forced labor, and the abuses associated with punishing those who do not participate violate Eritreans’ basic human rights, various provisions of the Eritrean constitution, and international human rights law.[168]

The consequences for Eritrea are disastrous in that the more the government seeks to compel the population, the more people flee the country. Eritrea is now in the grip of a refugee crisis with thousands of people fleeing or attempting to flee every month (see below, “The Experience of Refugees.”)[169] And since everyone must serve, no family in Eritrea is unaffected by the consequences of the national service policy.

Collective punishment of deserters’ families

There are strict penalties for those who try and escape national service as well as for any Eritreans who leave the country without government authorization. Families are collectively punished if their relatives flee national service, usually by being jailed or forced to pay fines. An officer formerly responsible for chasing down deserters explained how if the soldier could not be found then the family was arbitrarily detained instead:

If one of the men escapes, you have to go to his home and find him. If you don’t find him you have to capture his family and take them to prison. Since 1998, it’s standard to collect a family member if someone flees. The Administration gives the order to take family members if the national service member is not around. If you disappear inside Eritrea then the family is put in prison for some time and often then the child will return. If you cross the border, then [your family] pays 50,000 Nakfa [about US$3,050]. If there’s no money then it can be a long time in prison. I know people who are in prison for six months.[170]
 

All of the deserters interviewed by Human Rights Watch were fearful for the safety of their families and anxious that they would face the crippling 50,000 Nakfa fines, detention, or some other retribution such as the denial of business permits or the forfeiting of land in lieu of a cash fine.[171]Three former conscripts said their mothers had been imprisoned for four months, two months, and two weeks respectively because they could not afford to pay the 50,000 Nakfa fine.[172] One man, now in Italy, heard that his family’s farm had been taken because he had fled the army:

All the families of those who fled had to pay 50,000 or have their land taken away. This happened to a lot of people I knew. About half of the town suffered this. The area is usually a vegetable-growing area—tomatoes and spinach. When people lose their land they depend on God. If they pay 50,000 they get their land back. The memehidar [local administration] of the town demands the land. Sometimes security officials also take matters into their own hands.[173]

Abuse of female conscripts

Refugees told Human Rights Watch that women are conscripted less now than previously.[174]However, those who are recruited are more at risk of rights violations, rape, and sexual harassment in particular. As one female recruit who served as a conscript for 10 years explained, “First you do your military training then they hold you forever without your rights. The military leaders can ask you for anything and if you refuse their demands then you can be punished. Almost every woman in the military experiences this kind of problem.”[175] When she was approached by a commanding officer he punished her when she refused his advances:

The officer who asked me [for sex] was married. I said, ‘You are married,’ and he gave me military punishment and made me work without any break. I was tied in otto for three hours in the sun... this disturbed my mind. He was the commander of 100 [a company]. His official rank is marehai. After he untied me he asked, ‘Do you know this is your fault?’ I said, ‘This is not my fault.’ That’s when he made me work.[176]

 

No right of conscientious objection

The National Service Proclamation of 1995 makes no provision for conscientious objection to military service. Exemptions are provided for disability (article 15), and those considered unfit for military training must serve “in any public and government organ according to their profession.”[177] But in reality, as one Eritrean refugee said, “the only people who don’t go to military service are blind or missing their trigger fingers.”[178]

Human Rights Watch takes no position on conscription; indeed in many countries it is legal and well-regulated. However, the right of conscientious objection to military service has become an established international norm—a legitimate exercise of the right of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[179] It is possible, acceptable, and, in most other countries, normal, for individuals to undertake non-military forms of national service, such as community work, construction, or service in the health and education sectors. Many national service conscripts go on to do this kind of service in Eritrea, however their national service begins with a mandatory six months military training.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly affected by the lack of a right to conscientious objection because their faith forbids them to bear arms. Since independence adherents of this faith have been systematically persecuted for what the authorities have treated as their questionable commitment to the national struggle.[180]

Some unlucky youths are viewed by the government as, literally, born to fight. During the war for independence, children born to EPLF fighters were given over to the movement to be raised in communal crèches while the parents fought in the army. These children, called “red flowers” or keyahti embaba in Tigrinya, are not only expected to participate in national service, but are apparently given no choice but to join the military in their parents’ footsteps. One man born during the struggle fled Eritrea because he had no future there except as a soldier: “The government says that the children of yekalo [independence fighters] must join the military; they have to follow their fathers.... I told them I don’t want to be a soldier. They told me I must be because my parents died in the war.”[181]

“Psychological derangement” (article 14, 5.1) is also a ground for exemption from military service, and this appears to be a popular way to try and evade service. Recruits who have recently been in Sawa describe a dramatic increase in the number of people in the camp showing signs of severe mental illness. Recruits describe a new disease that has sprung up among young women drafted into Sawa and Wi’a training camps, called “lewt,” and only known in the camps. One male draftee explained: “In every cohort at least 10 girls die. The girls cannot handle the pressure and the punishment. The symptoms are a bent back, walking backwards, and some of them shake and fall down. They become like zombies, they just stare at you.”[182]But as one said, “I’m not sure if they are genuinely crazy or if they are just pretending to be crazy in order to be demobilized.”[183]

“Giffa”: press-ganging conscripts

Conscription is generally managed by local councils, the smallest units of local administration, sometimes referred to as kebelle, sometimes as memehidar, a general word meaning “administration.” These council officials maintain detailed records on the individual families in their area and ensure that those of age are conscripted. But in larger towns, the police or military also try to capture evaders or deserters through ad hoc round-ups. Round-ups of the population in towns and villages—known as giffa in Tigrinya— are common and constitute a kind of modern press-ganging. Anyone of age found without the relevant documents exempting them from national service is taken to the military camps of Sawa and Wi’a for training.[184]

Even aside from evaders and deserters, any civilian who forgets their identification or travel documents is at particular risk of being rounded up in a giffa and arbitrarily detained. As a young student who was put in Adi Abeto prison for 22 days described: “It was a Saturday and I was having coffee with friends. The police came and asked for papers, I said I would return to Mai Nehfi to get them but instead they took me to prison.”[185]

Human Rights Watch spoke to many men who had been apprehended by police or military through giffas.[186]A man who was conscripted in 1998 said he had asked dozens of times to be demobilized. “I have not seen the situation change for 10 years. I asked to leave the military but they tell you, ‘we are at war, you cannot leave.’”[187] He did not return after a scheduled vacation but was caught in a giffa and jailed in Aderser prison.

One young man had absconded from training at Sawa camp but was picked up again during a giffa in Adi Keyh town during 2007:

I remember the day because it was a Saturday, a market day. The soldiers surrounded the town the evening before and on Saturday people came to the market for shopping, around 11 a.m. Many people were caught. They ask you for ID card. I tried to escape but because of the crowd I couldn’t get away. They beat me and put me in a military vehicle. Soldiers don’t have any education, they have no respect, they simply take you away. We waited an hour or so in the truck while the soldiers were catching other people. People were crying.
 
After an hour or two we were taken to Track B [prison] in Asmara. We spent one day there without food except for a single biscuit. Then [we were] taken to Sawa, about 320 of us, almost all men except two or three women. In Sawa, men and women were divided, we were made to kneel down when we got out of the bus, you do it otherwise you will have the stick.[188]

Conscription from school

The preferred method of the Eritrean government is to conscript students into national service straight from school, unless they are continuing higher education. To this end, the final year of secondary school was moved to Sawa military camp in 2003. This 12th grade takes place only in Sawa, under military authority, and incorporating military training. Although many 12th grade students are 18 years old, or less, some are older because they take longer to finish high school.[189] Each round or intake of students incorporates 8,000 to 9,000 students.[190]

Once they are in the camp, however, military service effectively starts then and there. A teacher whose national service involved teaching in Sawa told Human Rights Watch, “The students could not study. They were always being forced to leave the class for some kind of military service.”[191] A former student said he did not even enter 12th grade but was ordered straight into national service in July 2007 even though he was less than 18 years old.[192]

National service is deeply unpopular, especially because new recruits know that there is no prospect of it ending. Students have started escaping from Sawa camp during their 12th grade year without completing school.[193] Escape is no mean feat, because, as described above, Sawa is in effect a huge prison. Those who made it described braving machine gun fire, barbed wire fences, and several days of walking through the desert without food and water.[194]

Some students, aware of their fate once they reach 12th grade have begun to deliberately fail classes so that they can remain in the lower grades.[195] Government awareness of this practice has been to simply pull anyone of military age—18 and above—out of school altogether, even though it is normal for some students to take extra years to finish school because they are poor or work on family farms. Several students described being taken to a military camp under false pretences.[196] One of them explained:

I was a student in Adi Keyh in 10th grade. The government told me I was overage and I was forced to leave the school in January 2006. They took 200 of us on a bus to Wi’a, telling us that we would continue our education there. They took everyone from all schools, not just those in secondary school but also those from junior and elementary school, everyone above 19 years. But in fact it was military training. The director of the school had told us that we would be going to school in Wi’a. We were surprised, we did not believe that we would be schooling in Wi’a, in the hot desert. When we got there to the camp, everyone was sad. It was very hot, people were dying from the sun, we buried about five. After four months I was deployed near Assab, a place called Klima. It was very hot too and people were dying there. I was given a vacation and then I escaped.[197]

Wi’a is reportedly the camp where the “not so clever” students go. If it appears that a student will not graduate high school anyway, then the government will send him to Wi’a even before he has finished. One former student who was sent to Sawa explained, “In school, if you are absent more than two weeks, you get sent to Wi’a—for whatever reason. Sawa is supposed to be for educated people. If you get kicked out of school, you are not fit for education anyway, so you go to Wi’a.”[198]

 

Forced Labor

After six months of compulsory military training, national service conscripts are deployed indefinitely in one of several possible activities. Many conscripts are simply drafted into military service and are deployed in regular military units.[199]One refugee interviewed by Human Rights Watch was sent to work as a clerk in a court in Asmara, another was sent to work as a mechanic in a civilian garage repairing trucks in Asmara.[200] Others described working on farms or mines owned by the state or the PFDJ ruling party, or building roads and bridges. Regular military units, conscripted military personnel, and prisoners are all also engaged in similar activities—building, mining, and farming.[201]

According to escaped conscripts, the normal “allowance” during training is 50 Eritrean Nakfa per month (about US$3).[202] After 18 months training while on national service, this is increased to 150 Nakfa a month ($9).[203]This is the same amount paid to former soldiers recalled for service during the 1998-2000 war and still mobilized as well as for the over-50s who have been mobilized to serve in a reserve militia. Some of those conscripted prior to 1998 appear to have been incorporated into the regular army and receive salaries accordingly. Regular soldiers are paid a salary of 330 to 3,000 Nakfa ($20 to $183) depending on rank.[204]

All walks of life have been transformed into national service, so that, in essence, an Eritrean is conscripted, subjected to military training for six months, then assigned to any job by the state. As one young man said, “The government is trying to do every single business in the country. National service people are employed in government enterprises, and every person below 40 is a member of national service. So if I’m assigned to work in a shop, then I’ll be working in a shop and serving my country.”[205]

In another example, a professional footballer was told to report for national service. When he finished six months of military training he was assigned to play football again, but as part of his national service. Before military training he was earning 3,600 Nakfa a month ($220). Afterwards, as part of national service, he was paid an allowance of 400 Nakfa a month ($24).[206] He said, “I kept playing because if I didn’t I would have been taken to the military again.”[207]

For regular recruits on national service, 150 Nakfa does not constitute a living wage, nor is their labor given freely. Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch refused to refer to the money they were paid as a salary, preferring instead to call it “pocket money.”[208] All complained that it was insufficient to live on and completely inadequate to feed a family. Western diplomats and UN officials confirmed that making ends meet on such amounts was impossible in Eritrea.[209] Nevertheless, an official with an agency that provides significant development assistance to Eritrea argued that national service labor is not necessarily forced labor, but “mobilizing people in a low wage environment.”[210]

Under international law—the Forced Labour Conventions and ILO Convention 29—the key points when considering the definition of forced labor are the extent to which: “(i) the works or services are exacted involuntarily; (ii) the exaction of labor or services takes place under the menace of penalty; and (iii) these are used as a means of political coercion, education or as a method of mobilising and using labor for purposes of economic development, as well as means of labor discipline.”[211]This is most certainly the case in Eritrea, and it would thus appear that forced labor on the Eritrean scale and for indefinite periods is a gross human rights violation.[212]

Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of men and one woman who described being forced to do back-breaking work and who were punished when they refused.[213] One man conscripted at the age of 16 in 1996 described doing many different jobs in the military until he fled at the beginning of 2008. After the 1998-2000 war, “when the fighting stopped I did different jobs in the army, planting, agriculture... after that we were collecting stones to build the Asmara-Assab road.”[214]

Another conscript finished his training at Sawa camp and was then deployed in Dekemhare on a construction site building houses for military leaders: “We were paid very little, whereas as a civilian builder you can earn. Some other soldiers refused to work and were jailed. If you don’t work you go to prison. You lose your vacation time and your pay—150 Nakfa—is stopped. If you refuse they see it as a political problem.”[215]

In its report of a mission to Eritrea, the European Parliament noted, “Via the ‘Cash for Work Programme,’ citizens contribute to the public works—such as the building of dams—against payments from the government. While this scheme was described as being voluntary, there is a risk of people being forced to work for the government in order to ensure they can earn their living.”[216] Most conscripts don’t openly refuse to work but they vote with their feet, either escaping from the military camps or waiting until their annual leave and then fleeing the country instead of reporting for duty once more.

Forced labor for private gain

The projects on which conscripts are deployed are not just public works for the national good. They are often sent to work on private construction projects, building houses for military leaders, and working on private farms. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both previously documented the use of conscript labor for the benefit of ranking members of the military and the government.[217]

Diplomats admitted that aid projects are implemented by national service labor working for private construction firms with good connections to the government.[218] “All companies are owned by the military or the party,” said one diplomat, and another complained that aid projects, “are meant to be allocated through an open bidding process, but in reality only those using conscript labor stand a chance.”[219] Several scholars concurred with this analysis.[220]As one wrote:

Since April 2006, only PFDJ construction firms are allowed to engage in construction activities after private firms and individual entrepreneurs were banned from the construction industry as part of the government’s crackdown on the private sector. On 3 April 2006, the government issued a directive ordering all “contractors, consultants, practicing professionals and studio operators” to submit to the Technical Office of the Central Region: their original licenses, detailed accounts, addresses, types and sizes of their projects, owners’ names, estimated total costs, on the day after (4 April 2006) the directive was issued. On 7 April 2006, the government also ordered all of them to cease their activities within ten days. The prohibition is still in force. The major beneficiaries of the ban are the ruling party’s more than forty enterprises which dominate every aspect of the country’s economy, the enterprises of the PFDJ’s mass organizations and the mushrooming construction firms belonging to the Ministry of Defence.[221]

One former EPLF fighter who was in the military administration told Human Rights Watch, “the senior officers have their own capital like shops, bars; they run businesses and the workers are the national service. The conscripts are working for the benefit of the higher ranks: Colonel, Brigadier, Major-General.”[222] A scholar who has conducted research in Eritrea over many years noted, “there is a whole class of people whose wealth rests on National Service labor.”[223]

Dozens of former prisoners who had escaped and fled the country described being put to work on military construction projects; some built military installations such as barracks and ports, others built properties owned by military leaders.[224] The conscripts deployed to work on commercial farms, mines, or construction projects were often housed in appalling conditions with bad nutrition and minimal pay. One national service soldier who had requested to be demobilized many times since independence in 1993 was deployed in a mine for two months. He explained:

Bad things happened. I had to do work on the houses of the leadership, had to collect sand crystals [some kind of crystalline sand], inside the earth. You use a stick to push the earth...The crystal sand is sharp and when you dig it out of the soil it creates infection in the fingers. When I complained that the fingers were injured they said, ‘you have to take punishment for that.’ At one point when I was tired and my fingers were bleeding I stood up and said I couldn’t do more. They asked why I was standing, and took me away. After beating me they asked me ‘Why don’t you work?’ I said, I came here accidentally because I didn’t have my ID card and I can’t do more work because my fingers are injured. At last when I said I had been a fighter, [in the liberation war] they stopped the punishment.[225]

It is not just conscripts who are providing cheap labor for the benefit of military leaders. Prisoners are regularly employed and school children are made to work during their school holidays. The national program for school children is called Mahtot. For two months during the break, children in 9th grade and above must report to work camps where they, “plant trees, clean houses, pick cotton and help with other agricultural projects,” in the words of one student.[226]Normally the children stay in schools in the area. During the two months their compensation is 150 Nakfa ($9) for their family; the fee is euphemistically called “soap money.”[227]

Restrictions on the Freedoms of Expression, Conscience, and Movement

Freedom of expression

Since 2001 Eritrea has been in the grip of a media blackout. All independent newspapers, radio, and television outlets have been shut down. Eritrea is the only country in Africa without an independent media outlet. Many journalists were arrested as part of a general clampdown on dissent in September 2001. Since then, many others have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, the whereabouts of most are unknown and Reporters sans frontières (RSF) believes that at least four have died in custody.[228]The Committee to Protect Journalists believes that as many as 14 journalists and editors are held incommunicado in secret locations; Eritrea is one of four countries in the world which together account for three quarters of all journalists in detention.[229] In its 2008 press freedom index RSF ranked Eritrea last, 173rd, behind North Korea, Turkmenistan, Burma, Cuba, Vietnam, China, and Iran.[230]

In 2006 and 2007, even journalists who worked for the state-run media agency were arrested and detained because some of their colleagues had decided to flee the country rather than continue working for the government.[231]They were suspected of wishing to flee themselves. Paulos Kidane, a popular figure on state television, was among those arrested in 2006. He was detained again in 2007 after he had escaped from jail and was trying to cross the border. He was reportedly arrested at the border and his family was subsequently informed by the authorities that he had “died accidentally.”[232]

In February 2009 RSF reported a new crackdown in which the entire staff of Radio Bana, which produces educational programs for the Ministry of Education, was arrested. Although most were released, a few staff remain in custody.[233]

One journalist who had fled the country told Human Rights Watch how he was arrested and sent to Dahlak prison, then later made to work for the military and after that the state television agency. He fled in 2007, and said, “I was a toy for the government.”[234]

One of the few permanent foreign journalists in Eritrea, the BBC’s Jonah Fisher, was expelled in 2004 following a broadcast on Amnesty International’s last report on human rights conditions in the country.[235]In an interview with Fisher, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki said, “What is free press? There is no free press anywhere.”[236] A freelance successor, Peter Martell, was also thrown out in March 2008 after he refused to disclose to the government the names of his sources for a report on veterans’ disillusionment with the government.[237]

In 1996 the Eritrean government passed a law governing the press which both guarantees press freedom and also provides for censorship if “the country, or part of it, is faced with a danger threatening public order, security and general peace caused by war, armed rebellion or public disorder or where a natural disaster ensues.”[238]The government has used the standoff with Ethiopia over the border issue as a catch-all justification for restrictions of rights and freedoms in all areas of freedom of expression.

It is not only the press that has been the subject of restrictions on free speech. Soldiers within the military told how they were detained and tortured for questioning the policies of the government in regimental meetings. One man was imprisoned indefinitely for denouncing the government in a military meeting: “In 2001 I told an assembly in the military that the government was illegal. I was sent to prison in Alla for two years. After two years there they transferred me to Dahlak.”[239]

Dozens of former conscripts told Human Rights Watch how they were detained for asking questions about the fate of political prisoners or expressing concern about the policy of indefinite military service.[240]

Teachers and university students who asked questions about the curriculum or who questioned why the authorities were withholding their graduation certificates also faced torture and jail. “Seventy to 80 percent of university students are trying to leave because they feel politically marginalized and they can’t speak freely. If you do they kill or imprison you,” said one teacher, a graduate of Mai Nehfi technical institute.[241]When he questioned the curriculum that he was asked to teach secondary school children in 12th grade in Sawa camp, he was warned by the head of the camp: “You are a teacher. We taught you. You are in the university because we helped you. Now you try to go against our curriculum. If you go on you will be in prison, even you will be killed.”[242] He told Human Rights Watch that the director of Sawa himself, the man in charge of administration for the camp, had made these threats.

In 2007 graduates of Mai Nehfi institute organized a petition calling on the Ministry of Education to issue graduates their degree certificates and for the college to be internationally recognized as the University of Asmara had been. The Ministry withholds certificates as an incentive for graduates to remain in the country, and refuses to give Mai Nehfi international status for the same reason. Eight hundred students reportedly signed the petition.[243]

One man who was among 50 teachers that presented the petition to Dr. Debrabrehane, administrator of Mai Nehfi college, in early 2007 was arrested by the military in the middle of the night, three days later. He spent five months in a military prison:

[There were] no questions just beating...they used to be beat me in the jail, morning and evening, like meals... They were telling us that we are traitors, that we are not ready to help and train the youth throughout the country. They insulted us and told us we were not educated. My family did not know where I was.... I later heard that four or five days later my mum was imprisoned for two weeks, in a civilian prison in Asmara. They asked her for 50,000 Nakfa because she had before signed my wahis [guarantor of good conduct] while I was a teacher. If I make any mistake then she will answer for my conduct.[244]

In December 2008, an Eritrean diaspora website reported that intelligence officers had raided an internet café in Asmara and arrested youth for accessing opposition websites. The article also said that government officials had summoned internet service providers and warned them not to allow customers to access such websites.[245]

Restrictions on religious freedom

In 2002, in a widely documented crackdown, the Eritrean government banned unregistered religious activity, essentially making it illegal for anyone to practice worship of any but four recognized faiths (Catholic, Lutheran, Eritrean Orthodox, and Islam).[246]The unrecognized churches were required to register with a new Department of Religious Affairs, and several reportedly attempted to do so but no registration permits have been authorized.[247]Since then, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have continued to be the object of repression and security forces have broken into homes and churches, rounded people up, detained, and tortured them. Admitting to being a Pentecostal Christian or being caught in possession of a Bible is enough to land oneself in jail, be subjected to torture, or denied the right to travel abroad.[248] In 2004, the United States designated Eritrea a country of particular concern because of its repression of freedom of religion.[249]

As mentioned above, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been singled out as a target for repression. After failing to vote in the 1993 referendum on independence and refusing to bear arms during national service they were in effect stripped of their citizenship.[250]Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot access public services or obtain official ID cards or commercial licenses.[251]

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 Evangelical Christian refugees, all of whom had been imprisoned—and some tortured—for their faith. Evangelical Christians wishing to practice their faith must do so clandestinely. Even then they are not safe from government abuse. Several Christians described holding prayer meetings in private houses during 2006 and 2007 in Asmara, Tesseny, and Senafe. Police or military, possibly acting on information given by informers, disrupted the meetings and arrested those present.[252] One elderly woman who has been a Pentecostal Christian for over 40 years said that because of the threat of informers she has taken to praying with different people, in different places, and different times.[253]

Helen Berhane, a well-known gospel singer, has described publicly several times how she was tortured to renounce her faith while in detention.[254] While holding a Bible-study class for other youth in a secret church outside Asmara, she was arrested and sent to Mai Serwa military prison where she was tortured, beaten, and held in a metal shipping container for over two years.[255] Her experience was typical of many others who have been routinely rounded up since 2002.[256]

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) by June 2007 over 2,000 Christians were in detention in Eritrea.[257] In late 2008, CSW reported house to house searches and a wave of arrests in numerous Eritrean towns, including Asmara. According to the organization 100 people were arrested in the period leading up to December 12, 2008, and detained in military facilities, some of them dying in custody.[258] Compass Direct, a Christian rights organization, estimated that by late 2008 nearly 3,000 Christians were in detention.[259]Compass Direct reported that three Christians had died in custody in the latter part of 2008, and that in June eight others were transferred to medical facilities because they had been tortured in custody.[260]

Persecution of religious conscripts

Many of those in detention in military prisons are there for practicing their faith whilst on national service. One young Pentecostal man who was arrested while praying with 13 others in Sawa military camp in 2006 told Human Rights Watch that he was locked up along with 20 others in an underground prison measuring four square meters. He was let out twice a day to go to the toilet. He said, “The soldiers told us to quit that religion or else we would be in prison our entire life.”[261]

A military policeman in Sawa camp told Human Rights Watch how he was punished for his faith during his lunch-breaks and then ordered back to work. Previously during training for national service, “They punished me for being a Pentecostal Christian: they beat me, handcuffed my hands and feet together, threw water on me... they burned my Bible,” he said. “Every time they saw me reading it, they would beat me, punish me. There were so many people there, not just me, for two weeks, with a policeman guarding you, lying in the sun.”[262]

A young Christian who was caught praying in Sawa camp was put in jail for one year. He was held with 20 others in an underground cell and let out twice a day to go to the toilet.[263]Dozens of Christian refugees described similar experiences. One woman who was caught with a Bible was arrested and tied with her hands and feet tied to opposite limbs behind the back. Her captors told her, “Jesus will save you now.”[264]

In January 2007 a woman on national service in Sawa camp was jailed in a shipping container for three months along with several others for reading the Bible together. She had served in the military for 10 years. She said that, “When I left prison they asked me to sign a paper saying ‘We caught you preaching,’ and I signed it.”[265]

But it is not just Evangelical Christian worshippers who face restrictions in the military. Adherents of all faiths face problems. As one female Christian jailed for reading the Bible in Sawa camp said, “Everyone, even the Orthodox and the Muslims, are not allowed to worship. Only politics is allowed.”[266] A soldier also claimed that no praying of any kind was permitted in the military—whether one was a follower of a Christian faith or Muslim.[267]

Freedom of movement

The Eritrean government’s oppressive behavior and compulsory national service has spawned other restrictions and human rights violations. Severe restrictions on freedom of movement are in place. As more and more of its citizens leave the country, the government’s methods to try and stem the exodus have become more brutal. As described above, a “shoot-to-kill” policy applied to anyone crossing the border without permission is clearly intended to deter movement outside the country. Within Eritrea, movement is equally circumscribed through a variety of mechanisms.

Local government authorities at the village or neighborhood level maintain detailed records of local populations. “They know the exact population, how many children are in the army and so on.”[268]Each zone is controlled by a subcommittee drawn from the local population—in essence civilians are employed to keep an eye on each other.

A visitor to Eritrea in late 2008 described buses being frequently stopped and searched and passengers asked for ID cards: some possessed laminated cards showing that they had completed national service, others had letters authorizing travel to a specific place and for a limited period of time.[269] This echoes the stories told to Human Rights Watch by individuals who were frequently detained for not possessing the relevant papers.[270] As one refugee said, “you cannot walk three hours without being asked for a permit.”[271]All roads in and out of Asmara and the major cities have checkpoints where military stop and check the documents of passengers.[272]

Escaping conscripts described walking around checkpoints in order to avoid detection on their way to the border.[273] A couple told Human Rights Watch, “we were moving during the night because to travel without a permit is difficult. During the day we stayed hidden under trees. We traveled at night because if we were caught then it would be dangerous, five years in prison or they can kill you, especially if you are a soldier or a university student.”[274] One woman who escaped told how she was smuggled over the Sudanese border by a businessman with a permit to travel along the Tesseney-Asmara road.[275]

Denial of exit visas

Due to the large number of people fleeing or refusing to return after being allowed to leave, exit visas are routinely denied for young people who are eligible for national service. Children from the age of 14 are usually denied exit visas but the US State Department has reported exit visas refused for children as young as five.[276] One older woman who had managed to travel to visit her children abroad described the signs in the Foreign Ministry as saying that only men over the age of 54 and women over 47 are eligible for exit visas, she said, “only the old can travel.”[277]

 

[74]Human Rights Watch interview with academic, January 11, 2009.

[75]Dan Connell, “Eritrea and the United States: the ‘war on terror’ and the Horn of Africa,” in Richard Reid, ed., Eritrea’s External Relations: Understanding its regional role and foreign policy (Chatham House, 2009), p. 207.

[76]Human Rights Watch interview with former EPLF fighter, now refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[77]The UN Declaration on Enforced Disappearances defines “disappeared” persons as those who are “arrested, detained, or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of liberty by government officials, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the direct or indirect support, consent, or acquiescence of the government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.” United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (Convention against Enforced Disappearances), adopted December 18, 1992, G.A. res. 47/133, 47 UN GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 207, UN Doc. A/47/49 (1992), art. 7. In Eritrea, family members do not always enquire after the whereabouts of their relatives due to pervasive fear, and in some cases, first-hand experience that they will be arrested in turn if they make such inquiries. Nonetheless, while technically these cases may not constitute “disappearances,” in most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch the “disappeared” individuals were last seen when arrested by Eritrean security forces, and the practice of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention by the government are widely known by the Eritrean public. Human Rights Watch therefore views these cases as “disappearances.”

[78]See US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2008: Eritrea,” February 25, 2009, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/af/119000.htm (accessed February 27, 2009). See also Amnesty International, “Prisoners of Conscience Remembered on 7th Anniversary of Mass Detentions,” September 18, 2008, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR64/007/2008/en/2eacb4cf-8593-11dd-8e5e-43ea85d15a69/afr640072008en.html (accessed December 17, 2008).

[79]Reporters sans frontières, World Report, 2008 http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=25386 (accessed December 15, 2008).

[80]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with diplomat, January 13, 2009.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with former conscripts, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[82] He has not seen his father since and was jailed for a year. Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[83]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[84] Human Rights Watch interviews with former military officers, Djibouti, September 16 and 17, 2008.

[85]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, and London, UK, October and November 2008.

[86]Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

[87]Human Rights Watch interview with national service teacher, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[88]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with former military driver, Sicily, Italy, October 28, 2008.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[91]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscripts, Sicily, Italy, October 2008.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with female former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

93 Human Rights Watch interview with Pentecostal pastor, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[94]See the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment, art. 1, http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_cat39.htm (accessed January 28, 2009). Ethiopia acceded to the Convention against Torture on April 13, 1994.

[95]Human Rights Watch interviews with survivors of Sawa and Wi’a camps, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[96]See Amnesty International, Eritrea: 'You have no right to ask' - Government resists scrutiny on human rights, AI Index: AFR 64/003/2004, May 18, 2004, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR64/003/2004 (accessed February 18, 2009). 

[97]Human Rights Watch interview with former inmate of Alla, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[98]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript in Wi’a camp, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[99]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[100]Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[101]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 28, 2008.

[102]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[103]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

[104]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Helene Berhane, December 19, 2008.

[105]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[106]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

[107]Human Rights Watch interview with former student, London, November 13, 2008.

[108]Human Rights Watch interview with former journalist, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[109]Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[110]Ibid and Human Rights Watch interviews with former detainees, Djibouti and Italy, September and November 2008.

[111]Human Rights Watch interviews with former detainees, Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[112]Human Rights Watch interviews with former political prisoners, Sicily, Italy, October 26 and 30, 2008.

[113]See US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2008: Eritrea,” February 25, 2009, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/af/119000.htm (accessed February 27, 2009). See also Amnesty International, You have no right to ask, reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide available at www.csw.org.uk, and accounts on www.awate.com and www.delina.org. See also Helen Berhane (former political prisoner, now a refugee in Denmark) interview with BBC World Service, October 24, 2008 http://blip.tv/file/443487 (accessed December 24, 2008).

[114]Human Rights Watch interviews Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008, and Amnesty International, You have no right to ask.

[115]Human Rights Watch interviewed former detainees in Dahlak who said that they had been detained alongside returnees from Malta.

[116]Human Right Watch interviews with former conscript and journalist, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with former political prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[118]Human Rights Watch interview with former journalist, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[119]Human Rights Watch interview with former inmate, Alla prison, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview, Sicily, October 24, 2008.

[121] Human Rights Watch interviews, Sicily, September 24-30, 2008.

[122]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[123]Human Rights Watch interviews with former detainees, Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[124]Ibid.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview, Sicily, October 28, 2008.

[126]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[128]Amnesty, You have no right to ask, pp. 20-21.

[129]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[130]Human Rights Watch interview with female conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[131]Interview with Helen Berhane, by phone, December 19, 2008.

132. See, for example, www.awate.com, www.delina.org, and www.ehrea.org. A defunct website called www.farajat.com had a list of over 800 people who had disappeared at the hands of the EPLF and the PFDJ; the list is on file with Human Rights Watch. A site called www.farajat.net exists but does not have the list posted.

[133]Human Rights Watch interviews, Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008. See also, Amnesty International, You have no right to ask; Reporters sans frontières, www.rsf.org; and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, www.csw.org.uk.

[134]Human Rights Watch interviews, Sicily, Italy, October 24-30, 2008.

[135]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[136]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[137]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[138]Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 16, 2008, see also an article describing the circular from ‘a very reliable source,’ at http://www.awate.com/portal/content/view/4502/3/ (accessed January 26, 2009).

[139]Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[140]Meginsteab Girmay Ares, November 18, 2008.

[141]Reporters sans frontières, Annual Report 2008 http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=25386 (accessed December 17, 2008).

[142]Human Rights Watch interview, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[143]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[144]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[145]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[146]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[147]Democracy Movement of Eritrea, an opposition group opposed to the ruling PFDJ regime, an offshoot of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea (DMLE).

[148]Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[149]Human Rights Watch interview with former soldier, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[150]See Gaim Kibreab, “Forced Labour in Eritrea,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 47, 1 (2009), pp. 41-72, and Pool, From Guerillas to Government.

[151]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean military deserter, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

[152]Human Rights Watch interview, Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 29, 2008.

[153]Government of Eritrea, ‘Proclamation of National Service No.82/1995,’ Eritrean Gazette, No.11 October 23, 1995.

[154]Ibid., article 5.

[155]Ibid., article 13 (2).

[156]See Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report 2008 - Eritrea, 20 May 2008. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/486cb0fdc.html (accessed March 3, 2009).

[157]Human Rights Watch interview with academic, London, January 11, 2009, also Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees Djibouti, Italy, and Britain, September, October, and November, 2008. One witness said, “They say 50 but it’s not really,” Djibouti, Italy, September 16, 2008. See also, UK Border Agency, ‘Country of Origin Report,’ Home Office, September 13, 2008, p. 47 for a presentation of some of the source material, at: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/country_reports.html#ecuador (accessed January 29, 2009).

[158]Human Rights Watch interviews with diplomat, Asmara, by phone, January 13, 2009; with Gaim Kibreab, London, December 4, 2008; and with Eritrean refugees in Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[159]Ibid.

[160]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees in Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[161]Human Rights Watch interview with Gaim Kibreab, London, December 4, 2008.

[162]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees in Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008. See also Government of Eritrea, ‘Proclamation of National Service No.82/1995,’ Eritrean Gazette, No.11 October 23, 1995, articles 12 and 14. See note 140, above.

[163]Report of the fact-finding mission of a Delegation of the Development Committee of the European Parliament to the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia) (25 October-2 November 2008), p. 5.

[164] United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Ethiopia and Eritrea, S/2007/33, January 22, 2007, p. 3.

[165] United Nations, “Safety and Security of humanitarian personnel and protection of United Nations personnel,” A/60/223/Corr.1, November 10, 2005, http://www.iom.ch/jahia/webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/policy_and_research/un/60/A_60_223_corr_1_en.pdf (accessed March 3, 2009).

[166]“UN peacekeeping mission voices hope Eritrea will release 11 arrested local staff,” UN news, May 12, 2006, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2006/05/mil-060512-unnews03.htm (accessed March 3, 2009).

[167] Ibid.

[168]Eritrea ratified the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) on 22 February 2000, The Constitution of Eritrea, Chapter III ‘Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, Articles 13-29.’

[169]It is unclear exactly how many Eritreans are fleeing every month but the numbers have steadily increased over the past few years. See “Sudan asks UN for aid for Eritrean, Somali refugees,’” Reuters, December 22, 2008, http://lite.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/LM314868.htm (accessed March 3, 2009). Ethiopia claims there are more than 30,000 Eritrean refugees in the Shimelba camp but the US Committee for Refugees put the number of Eritreans in Shimelba at 16,800 in 2008. See Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Week in the Horn,” Jan. 23, 2009, http://www.mfa.gov.et/Press_Section/Week_Horn_Africa_January_23_2009.htm and United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Ethiopia, June 19, 2008. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/485f50d171.html (accessed March 3, 2009).

[170]Human Rights Watch interview, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

[171]Human Rights Watch interviews, Djibouti and Sicily, Italy, September and October 2008.

[172]Human Rights Watch interview with refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24 and 26, 2008.

[173]Human Rights Watch interview with deserter, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[174]Human Rights Watch interview with refugees, Italy and Djibouti, September and October 2008.

[175]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[176]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[177]Government of Eritrea, ‘Proclamation of National Service No.82/1995,’ Eritrean Gazette, No.11 October 23, 1995, article 13 (1).

[178]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[179]See for example UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1989/59.

[180]For further details on the persecution of Christians and Jehovah’s witnesses in Eritrea, see Amnesty International, Eritrea: Religious Persecution, December 7, 2005, at http://asiapacific.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR640132005?open&of=ENG-ERI (accessed February 26, 2009). See also US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “International Religious Freedom Report – 2008: Eritrea,” http://2001-2009.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108367.htm (accessed February 26, 2009).

[181]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[182]Ibid.

[183]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, London, November 13, 2008.

[184] Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees, Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[185]Human Rights Watch interview with former student, Sicily, Italy, October 29, 2008.

[186]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[187] Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[188]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[189]Eritrea acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on February 16, 2005, with a declaration that the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces is 18. http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&id=135&chapter=4&lang=en (accessed February 26, 2009).

[190]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008, see also UK Border Agency, ‘Country of Origin Report: Eritrea,’ Home Office, September 13, 2008, p. 44.

[191]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[192]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 27, 2008.

[193]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[194]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[195]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[196]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008 and Djibouti, September 19, 2008.

[197]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[198]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, London, November 13, 2008.

[199]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[200]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 26 and 29, 2008.

[201]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008, and Human Rights Watch interviews with diplomats, by phone, January 13 and 22, 2009. See also Amnesty International, You have no right to ask.

[202] At time of writing, the Eritrean Nafka was worth US$0.06.

[203]Human Rights Watch interviews with Eritrean refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[204]Human Rights Watch interview with former army accountant, Sicily, Italy, October 27, 2008, and with former conscripts, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[205]Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 28, 2008. See above for a discussion about the upper age limits for national service.

[206]Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[207]Ibid.

[208]Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 2008.

[209]Human Rights Watch interviews by phone, December 19, 2008 and January 12 and 14, 2009.

[210]Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat by phone, January 22, 2009.

[211]See ‘Eritrea’s Legal Obligations’, below.

[212]The ICCPR exemption from the prohibition on “forced or compulsory labour” only applies to service of “a military character”, or that required of conscientious objectors, or “normal civil obligations”. (ICCPR article 8(3)).

[213]Human Rights Watch interviews with former Eritrean conscripts, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[214]Human Rights Watch interview with former Eritrean conscript (name withheld), Sicily, Italy, October 27, 2008.

[215]Human Rights Watch interview with former Eritrean conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[216]Report of the fact-finding mission of a Delegation of the Development Committee of the European Parliament to the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia) (25 October-2 November 2008), p. 5.

[217]Human Rights Watch, World Report 2007, p. 117, Amnesty, You have no right to ask - Government resists scrutiny on human rights, 2004, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR64/003/2004/en (accessed, December 8, 2008).

[218]Human Rights Watch interviews with diplomats by phone, January 12, 14, and 22, 2009.

[219]Ibid.

[220] Human Rights Watch interview with scholar, London, January 11, 2009.

[221]Gaim Kibreab, “Forced Labour in Eritrea,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 47, 1 (2009), pp. 41-72.

[222]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 27, 2008.

[223]Human Rights Watch interview with academic, January 11, 2009.

[224]Human Rights Watch interviews with former detainees, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

[225]Human Rights Watch interview with former soldier, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[226]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, London, UK, November 13, 2008.

[227]Ibid.

[228] Reporters sans frontières, Eritrea Annual Report 2008, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=25386 (accessed March 26, 2009).

[229]Committee to Protect Journalists, 2007 Annual Report: Eritrea, and www.cpj.org, the other three countries are China, Cuba, and Burma.

[230] Reporters sans frontières, Annual Report 2008, http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_en-2.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

[231]Reporters sans frontières, Eritrea Annual Report 2007, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=20749 (accessed December 17, 2008).

[232] Reporters sans frontières, “Radio journalist arrested as he tried to flee,” July 2007,

http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=22432 (accessed December 17, 2008).

[233] RSF urged the European Union to cut development aid to Eritrea. “Plea to EU to suspend development aid in light of fresh crackdown on journalists,” Reporters sans frontières, March 6, 2009, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30491 (accessed March 27, 2009).

[234]Human Rights Watch interview with former journalist, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[235]Jonah Fisher, “Quick Exit: BBC expelled from Eritrea,” BBC, September 10, 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3644630.stm (accessed December 17, 2008).

[236]Ibid.

[237]Peter Martell, “Not so fond farewell to Eritrea,” BBC online, March 10, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7283293.stm (accessed January 29, 2009).

[238]Government of Eritrea, ‘Proclamation No.90/1996 – the Press Proclamation’, Gazette of Eritrean Laws, Vol.6/1996 Asmara, June 10, 1996. Part II, article 1a, “the freedom of the press is guaranteed pursuant to this Proclamation.”

[239]Human Rights Watch interview with former soldier, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[240]Human Rights Watch interviews with former conscripts, Djibouti and Italy, September and October, 2008.

[241] Human Rights Watch interview with refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[242]Human Rights Watch interview with former teacher, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 2008.

[243]Ibid.

[244]Human Rights Watch interview with former teacher, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[245]http://www.assenna.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1302&Itemid=70 (accessed, January 5, 2008).

[246]According to Amnesty International, about 90 percent of the Eritrean population are followers of Sunni Islam or the Eritrean Orthodox church. Five percent are Roman Catholics and two percent are Protestants, belonging to a Lutheran church known as the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, part of the Lutheran World Federation. There are also small numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, growing numbers of evangelical or “born again” protestant churches, and a few followers of the Baha’i faith. Amnesty International, Eritrea: Religious Persecution, AF/64/013/2005, December 7, 2005.

[247] Ibid. See also See US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2008: Eritrea,” February 25, 2009, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/af/119000.htm (accessed February 27, 2009). See also US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “International Religious Freedom Report – 2008: Eritrea,” September 19, 2008, http://2001-2009.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108367.htm (accessed February 27, 2009).

[248]Human Rights Watch interviews with Pentecostal Christians, Italy, September and October 2008.

[249]See United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, at http://www.uscirf.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=154&Itemid=1 (accessed January 28, 2009).

[250]See Amnesty International, Eritrea: Religious Persecution, December 7, 2005.

[251]Ibid. See also Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Briefing: Eritrea, July 2007, on file with Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Watch interview with Jehovah’s Witness refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 30, 2008.

[252]Human Rights Watch interviews with Christian refugees, Sicily, Italy, October 24, 25, and 28, 2008.

[253] Human Rights Watch interview with Pentecostal Christian, by phone, December 19, 2008.

[254] Helen Berhane interview with BBC World Service, October 24, 2007 http://blip.tv/file/443487 (accessed January 5, 2009) and interview with Human Rights Watch, by phone, December 19, 2008.

[255] Human Rights Watch interview with Helen Berhane, by phone, December 19, 2008.

[256]See for example, Amnesty International, ‘Urgent Action Eritrea: Torture/Prisoners of Conscience’ November 3, 2006 which mentions one hundred and sixty members of banned churches arrested on October 15 and 16 2006. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR64/013/2006/en (accessed, December 19, 2008).

[257]Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Briefing, 2007.

[258]Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “Wave of arrests reaches Asmara,” December 19, 2008.

[259]Compass Direct, ‘Christian Deaths Mount in Eritrean Prisons,’ January 23, 2009. The US State Department relied on these reports for its estimate of at least 3,000 individuals in detention at the end of 2008. US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2008: Eritrea,” http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/af/119000.htm (accessed February 27, 2009).

[260]Compass Direct, ‘Christian Deaths Mount in Eritrean Prisons,’ January 23, 2009.

[261]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

[262]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[263]Human Rights Watch interview, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[264]Human Rights Watch interview, Rome, Italy, October 23, 2008.

[265]Human Rights Watch interview with former Christian conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[266]Human Rights Watch interview with former Christian conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[267]Human Rights Watch interview with former soldier, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

[268]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Rome, Italy, October 23, 2008.

[269]Human Rights Watch interview with recent visitor, by email, December 12, 2008.

[270]Human Rights Watch interviews, Djibouti and Italy, September and October 2008.

[271]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean refugee, Rome, Italy, October 23, 2008.

[272]Ibid. and interview with recent visitor, by email, December 12, 2008.

[273]Human Rights Watch interview with former conscripts, Sicily, October 24 and 26, 2008.

[274]Human Rights Watch interview with refugees, Sicily, October 24, 2006.

[275]Human Rights Watch interview with female refugee, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

[276]US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2004: Eritrea,” February 28, 2005. The report states: “Men under the age of fifty, regardless of whether they had completed National Service; women aged eighteen to twenty seven; members of Jehovah’s Witnesses; and others who are out of favor with or seen as critical of the government, were routinely denied exit visas. In addition the government often refused to issue exit visas to adolescents and children as young as five years of age, either on the grounds that they were approaching the age of eligibility for National Service or because their diaspora parent had not paid the two percent income tax required of all citizens residing abroad. Some citizens were given exit visas only after posting bonds of approximately US$7,300 (100,000 Nakfa).”

[277]Human Rights Watch interview with Eritrean resident, by phone, December 19, 2008.