Plagued by recurring famine and heightened tensions with Ethiopia over their joint border, Eritrea has remained a police state in which dissent is ruthlessly suppressed and non-governmental political, civic, and social institutions are largely forbidden to function.
- Suppression of Dissent and Opinion
- Suppression of Minority Religions
- Forced National Service
- Prison Conditions and Torture
- Relations with Ethiopia
- Key International Actors
Suppression of Dissent and Opinion
Eritrea is a one-party state. No political party other than the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is allowed to exist. No group larger than seven is allowed to assemble without government approval. No national elections have been held since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Elections were canceled in 1997 because of a border war with Ethiopia. They were canceled again in 2001, two years after the war ended. They remain unscheduled. The government recently announced that it will hold regional elections but no date has been set.
The government has refused to implement the 1997 constitution, drafted by a constitutional assembly and ratified by referendum. The constitution contains restraints on the arbitrary use of power. It provides for writs of habeas corpus, the rights of prisoners to have the validity of their detention decided by a court, and fair and public trials. The constitution protects freedom of the press, speech, and peaceful assembly. It authorizes the right to form political organizations. It allows every Eritrean to practice any religion.
On September 18, 2001, the government arrested eleven leaders of the PFDJ after release of a letter they sent to President Issayas Afewerki, criticizing his leadership and asking for democratic reform, including implementation of the 1997 constitution. At the same time, the government arrested publishers, editors, and reporters and closed all non-government newspapers and magazines. In the two years since, the government has arrested scores of Eritreans because of their ties to the dissidents, their perceived political views, or their deviation from government dogma.
Those arrested in 2001 and many of those arrested since have been held incommunicado in secret detention sites. Although President Issayas has called the detainees traitors and spies, the government has been unwilling to bring them to trial or to accord them any semblance of due process. Under the Eritrean penal code, detainees should not be held for over thirty days without charges.
Arbitrary arrests and prolonged imprisonment without trial have not been limited to political leaders and the press. The government detained 250 refugees who fled Eritrea but were involuntarily repatriated from Malta in late 2002. They were still being held in incommunicado detention at the end of 2003.
Since the closing of the private press in 2001, the government has maintained a monopoly on access to information. In 2003, the government posted guards to prohibit access to two information centers operated by the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). It then asked UNMEE to close both centers on the grounds that they were unnecessary and that some of their materials were not suitable for young children.
Suppression of Minority Religions
Members of Pentecostal Christian churches have been arrested for possession of bibles or for communal worship. The government closed all religious institutions in May 2002 except for those affiliated with the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Eritrean Evangelical (Lutheran) churches and Moslem mosques. At the end of 2003, there were reliable reports that over 300 members of unrecognized churches were incarcerated.
Forced National Service
All Eritreans between the ages of eighteen and forty-five must perform two years of compulsory national service. In practice, however, the time for service is repeatedly prolonged. There are frequent sweeps to round up evaders. Beginning in 2003, school students must complete their last year of schooling at the military training camp at Sawa, in western Eritrea. The commander of the facility said the students are considered members of the Eritrean Defense Forces. The government sometimes uses national service as retribution for perceived criticism of government policies. An Eritrean reporting for the Voice of America (VOA) had his press credentials withdrawn on July 8, 2003, and was sent to Sawa for national service after he cast doubt on the government's reports that family members had "celebrated" when the government finally released the name of war dead almost three years after the end of hostilities. VOA claimed that the reporter had previously completed national service and was exempt from further call-up for medical reasons.
Prison Conditions and Torture
Because of the volume of arrests, prisoners are often held in improvised cargo containers. At Aderser, near Sawa, prisoners are held in underground cells. At least six high school students were also reported incarcerated in solitary confinement in underground cells at Sawa. In addition to psychological abuse, escapees report the use of physical torture at some prisons. Prisoners have been suspended from trees, arms tied behind their backs, a technique known as almaz (diamond). Prisoners have also been placed face down, hands tied to feet, a torture known as the "helicopter." Prison visits by international human rights organizations are prohibited.
Because of severe drought, as much as one third of Eritrea's children suffered from malnutrition in 2003, though there were no reports of starvation. More abundant rain in 2003 should somewhat ameliorate external food needs in 2004 but the harvest has still been described as disappointing.
Relations with Ethiopia
The 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia ended with an armistice agreement by which Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to binding arbitration of their border. In 2003, Ethiopia announced that it rejected the decision of the independent boundary commission, largely because it awarded the village of Badme, the flashpoint for the war, to Eritrea. (See Ethiopia). The Eritrean government used the possibility of renewed conflict as a justification for postponing elections and prolonging national service.
Key International Actors
The international community's assistance in 2003 primarily consisted of food and other humanitarian assistance. Because of Eritrea's woeful human rights record, it received little in other types of assistance.
The European Union (E.U.) announced in 2003 that it would provide Eritrea an unstated sum under the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, in addition to a €96 million five-year aid package (until 2007) for social and economic development. The E.U. said that its assistance would depend on the government's willingness to improve civil liberties.
The United States (U.S.) in 2003 withheld non-humanitarian assistance, largely because Eritrea has refused to release two American Embassy local employees arrested in 2001. (After two years no charges have been filed against them). While the official U.S. position is one of keeping its distance, U.S. defense department officials, including the secretary of defense, frequently praise the Eritrean government for its support in fighting terrorism.