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Free Eritrea’s Prisoners of Conscience!

Eleven former freedom fighters and government officials were illegally arrested in Eritrea on 18th of September 2001 in violation of local, continental and international law. In May 2001, the detainees, in an effort to bring about an open dialogue that was meant to usher in democracy and constitutional governance, wrote an open letter which criticised government policies.

Their letter called upon all members of Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the sole government party, to express their opinion through legal and democratic means and to give their support to the goals and principles that the signatories of the letter considered just. The government responded by paving the way to imprisoning the critics – it announced that the individuals were acting illegally and were posing a threat to national security. Subsequently, 11 out of the 15 critics were jailed in a dawn raid that shocked the country. Three members of the group were abroad at the time.

The Context

In 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which took the lives of over 70,000 soldiers from both sides. The war lasted for two ruinous years. The war was carelessly ignited, carelessly handled, and carelessly brought to a conclusion.

On 18 June 2000, the Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to a complete peace agreement and binding arbitration of their disputes under the Algiers Agreement. Later, on 12 December 2000 the two governments signed the peace agreement. And soon after the agreement was signed, Eritreans began to reflect on what went wrong. Much to their surprise, the true colours of the Eritrean leadership began to show as the government attempted to unload its shortcomings on others, including those who fought for decades to liberate Eritrea from Ethiopia.

In May 2001, a new group of dissidents took shape as the G-15 which was composed of influential veteran fighters turned government officials. Their open letter accused the President of ‘conducting himself in an illegal and unconstitutional manner’. This group of 15 veterans and senior Party officials went on to charge President Afewerki with governing illegally. And the President responded heavy-handedly.

Remembering Eritrea’s Prisoners of Conscience

On 18 Sep 2001, while the international community busied itself with the events of September 11 twin-tower terrorist act, the president instructed his security agents to arrest eleven of the 15 signatories of the open letter in pre-dawn raids. Simultaneous with the round-up, all eight privately-owned newspapers were shut down in Eritrea and their editors and journalists were also detained. Since their arrest, the detainees have been held incommunicado, without access to their families, lawyers or

international humanitarian organizations, and their whereabouts is unknown. However, reports from inside the country indicate that all prisoners are held under degrading conditions and are routinely tortured.

EMDHR believes that the vindictive nature and the hate-practices the government of Eritrea is exercising are corrosive of the wisdom of our elders and public conscience. PFDJ’s cruel mentality not only has poisoned the nation’s spirit, but also instigated a brutal life and death struggle among the citizens. PFDJ has destroyed our society’s tolerance and humanity, and blocked our country’s progress to freedom and democracy through its treacherous and divisive political machinations.

The Eritrean government has lost its credibility in the eyes of its own citizens by imprisoning heroes of the armed struggle and many innocent citizens unjustly. The loss of that credibility is exhibited in many skewed developments that occurred since then – the closure of faith institutions, keeping most young people in perpetual bondage under the guise of national service, repression that instigated a coup attempt, abolition of the ratified constitution, the unrelenting flight of our young people and more.

EMDHR has spoken out against injustice in Eritrea repeatedly; and it will continue to do so until justice begins to rise over our country’s horizon. We have an obligation to stand on the side of the silenced, the oppressed, and the mistreated. Today, we call for solidarity in demanding for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in Eritrea.

Free Eritrea’s Prisoners of Conscience!

Eritrean Movement For Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) 18 September 2015 Pretoria, South Africa

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