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Eritrea: Paper Trail That Put Eritrea's Dissidents in Jail

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21 September 2001
Posted to the web 21 September 2001

Charles Cobb Jr.
Washington, DC

The arrest this week of 11 of the 15 signatories of a dissident letter addressed to President Isaias Afewerki, was the latest move in a war of attrition that has been going on between the government and its critics for nearly a year.

According to the government, the G-15 - as the dissident group is known - was plotting to establish political cells in and out of government throughout Eritrea, coordinating their activities with "established regional countries."

There are rumors that several will be charged with treason. The whereabouts of the detainees is unknown. Three of the 15 are said to be in the United States.

The path to the present crack-down by the government began in Berlin, Germany, almost one year ago, on October 1 2000, when thirteen Eritrean academics and professionals first wrote to President Isaias Afewerki.

It was a cautious letter, written at the end of the two-year conflict with Ethiopia, supportive of Afewerki's leadership "and our government in its defense of our country's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

But the mild opening paragraphs also contained the outline of sharp political criticism and challenge: "It is our firm belief that the military threat posed by Ethiopia cannot be dealt with separately from the political and economic challenges that confront us as a new nation."

The letter went on to question the causes of "this tragic war," repeating that there was a "need for critical review of the post-independence developments in Eritrea." In addition to the suffering and loss of property, it continued, the war "has also raised grave questions about the conduct of Eritrean affairs both domestic and foreign, and about the nature of our leadership in the post-independence period." "Eritrea is at a crossroad," the writers concluded.

For some time, some of the leading figures from Eritrea's independence struggle had been arguing among themselves. Collective leadership was being abandoned, some felt. The role of the party - the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) - in both government and the economy was another matter for dispute, with some arguing that implementation of the constitution needed to be speeded up. The debate had not, however, yet become public.

But the letter, intended to be private, was almost immediately leaked to Eritrean and Ethiopian web sites and what was now termed "the Berlin Manifesto" triggered a higher pitch of argument.

President Afewerki invited the group - dubbed the G-13 - to meet with him. His view, as he expressed it in a press interview, was that the group did not know what they were talking about. "They know it and I know it, that these are completely detached people from reality who have never been here. They came up with their opinions. I respect anyone's opinion. I do not see any substantive issue on the paper outside the publicity given to it."

The group met with Afewerki in Asmara on November 25th, bringing yet another letter. In this document they stated that they were not a political group and made a formal request to work with the government "as much as possible". They denied having anything to do with the leaking of their original "Berlin" letter, explaining that it had been sent by registered mail to the President with a copy to Eritrea's ambassador to the United States.

Afewerki had a letter for his visitors, which he took out of his pocket, saying he had typed it himself, at home on his computer. In the letter, as a member of the group recalls, Afewerki said he was disappointed and admonished the group to admit it had made a mistake in writing the Berlin letter. "We all make mistakes," he said. He also said he didn't have to defend himself for anything."

Much of the discussion centred on how the Berlin letter came to be leaked. Afewerki was "visibly annoyed," recalled Dawit Mesfin, one of the participants, in a subsequent interview with

"He was putting us on the defensive." He agreed, in principal, that the issues raised in our document were valid [but] as we made an effort to engage him on the real issues he sort of made it clear that he did not want to get into a political enkili (circuitous talk). That was quite a let-down."

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There had been some arrests of journalists who worked for privately-owned newspapers, but critical voices were, at this stage, still muted. A committee created by the National Assembly was working to draft rules for the formation of political parties who would contest elections scheduled for December 2001.

Nonetheless, some observers detected what seemed to be a subtle shift in the personality of the president - a hardening of position. Eritrea had lost its second war with Ethiopia. "The defeat and humiliation that Eritrea suffered might have affected him," speculates Bereket Habte Selassie, one of the letter-writers. "Obviously, he must have felt hurt."

There had been dissatisfaction among some PFDJ members for some months, in the aftermath of the war. "Decisions were twisted, misinterpreted and shelved," Mahmoud Sherifo, a PFDJ Central Committee member and Minister of Local Governments, wrote in a letter to the president seeking meetings of the party's central and national councils.

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