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Ciham Ali Abdu  © Private

Ciham Ali turns 23 today, the eighth year in a row she will be spending her birthday behind bars in an Eritrea prison. She has been held there incommunicado since the age of 15.

For several years now, Eritrean diaspora groups, notably One Day Seyoum, have campaigned for Ciham and other political detainees’ release. This year, with the threat of COVID-19 hanging over the scores of detainees held in prisons, the call seems even more poignant.  

Ciham was born in the United States but moved to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, with her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, who was taking up a position as a government official under President Isaias Afewerki. Her father was appointed information minister, but fled to Australia in 2012 after he fell out with the president. Shortly after, Ciham was arrested trying to flee to Sudan for her safety.

According to Ciham’s family, they have not received any information from the government on her whereabouts or wellbeing. This is the norm for detainees in Eritrea, many of whom were arbitrarily arrested for allegedly criticizing the government, and have been held without trial for years.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses serious risks to prisoners in Eritrea.

Unsanitary and inhumane conditions of detention in many countries place detainees at an especially high risk for contracting the disease. Human Rights Watch has documented how thousands of prisoners are held in overcrowded places of detention with inadequate food, water, and medical care. Now that Eritrea has reported its 22nd case of COVID-19, it’s time for the government to take concrete steps to ensure the safety and welfare of detainees, and notify families of their loved ones’ wellbeing.

Given the current health crisis, adequate food, water, and medical care must be provided to detainees. But ultimately, the Eritrean government should grant Ciham and other prisoners – who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place – unconditional release, and return them to the safety of their homes, where they can celebrate birthdays with loved ones. 

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