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The government of Eritrea has intensified a major crackdown on its opponents in recent days, Human Rights Watch charged today.

President Isaias Afewerki’s government should immediately free recently detained political dissidents, allow the return of university students to their classes, and lift the ban it decreed as of Wednesday on privately owned newspapers, Human Rights Watch said.

"The government is trying to stamp out all criticism of its disastrous war policies," said Suliman Baldo, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The situation is growing sharply worse."

At the root of the unrest is the government’s prosecution of the country’s disastrous two-year border war with Ethiopia that caused tremendous suffering for the population, and seriously undermined the country’s developmental achievements.

"President Afewerki’s government is apparently trying to use the world’s current preoccupation with other events to escalate its repressive campaign against dissidents," Baldo said.

The Eritrean government on Wednesday arrested five political reformists, following the arrest on Tuesday of six others. The eleven detainees are members of the so-called “G-15,” a reference to a group of fifteen founding members of the liberation front that has led the country to its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after thirty years of a devastating civil war, and ruled over it ever since. The G-15 last May signed a public letter criticizing President Afewerki for ruling in an “illegal and unconstitutional” manner, and calling on him to institute democratic reforms. Those arrested on Tuesday and Wednesday include Beraki Gebreselassie, Petros Solomon, Mohamed Sherifo, Ocbe Abraha, and Haile Woldensae, all of whom had, until recently, held high-ranking political and military positions.

There are genuine concerns about the whereabouts and detention conditions of the reformists. Heightening these concerns was a statement published in Hadas Eritrea, a government newspaper and the only one currently allowed to publish, claiming that the government has only moved against “those who had committed crimes against the sovereignty, security and peace of the nation.” The reformists might thus be accused of “treason,” a crime punishable by death under Eritrean law, and most likely brought before a closed government “special court."

Authorities also announced the closure of all the independent press in the country as of Wednesday. The privately owned press provided a forum for the widening debate on needed reforms in Eritrea. A government radio broadcast said that the country’s eight private newspapers had ignored repeated warnings to correct unspecified mistakes.

The recent clampdown on civil society and critical political voices was reportedly triggered by an increasingly tense standoff between the government and university students demanding greater academic freedom and social liberties, particularly the publication last week in a private newspaper of a long diary of a student on a forced summer work program.

Students at the University of Asmara, the only one in the country, had joined in criticizing the government by demanding better treatment from the government and consultation on matters that concern them. The summer work program is mandatory for University of Asmara students, who are allowed to defer their national military service until after graduation. This year, the students protested the appalling conditions of previous camps. On July 31, the police arrested the president of the Asmara University student council, Semere Kesete, a day after he publicly announced that students would not enroll in the summer program unless certain reforms were carried out. He remains in jail without charge.

When students tried to protest his arrest at his court appearance on August 10, four hundred of them were rounded up and sent to the work program in Wia, a desert camp near the Red Sea port of Massawa, in a region where daytime temperatures hover about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). The government accused the students, who were not charged, of “unruly behavior” and “unlawful acts.” Following the forcible transfer of the arrested students to Wia, 1700 others "voluntarily” joined them there, according to the government. The government acknowledged that two students died of heatstroke during the past month, but attributed the loss to “lack of adequate logistical support” at the camp. There were reports that a number of other students were taken for treatment from heat exhaustion in closed military hospitals, and some may have died.

Officials recently told students that they could return to Asmara to register for the new academic year at the end of August, but postponed the date when the students refused to be addressed by the visiting president of the University of Asmara. Police also used batons to disperse regular gatherings of parents demanding the return of their children from the contested work program, and reportedly arrested some of the protesters.

The newspaper article that seemingly precipitated the government's heavy-handed reaction described the ordeal of the students held at Wia camp in detail. Prior to the closure of the independent press, a number of journalists were sent to the mandatory national service in what appeared to be an attempt to silence them. The editor and a reporter for one newspaper, Keste Debena, have been forced to flee to Sudan. Both had previously been arrested several times for their reporting. They are among an increasing number of Eritreans who have fled the country in the last three months. In early August, the chief justice was deposed, about two weeks after he publicly complained about executive interference with the judiciary.

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