Political rights and Civil liberties violation

in Post liberation Eritrea

Resoum Kidane18-09-05

Today the name Eritrea is identified with imprisonment. It is the country which the largest number of prisoners of anywhere in the world in proportion to its population. It also has the highest number of journalists jailed in the world. Amnesty International estimates that several thousand political prisoners are languishing, incommunicado in detention. Their crime is to call for democracy and freedom of expression, criticizing the government or just having different opinions from the government Showing sympathy with the G15 and other prisoners of conscience or suspicion of evading military conscription and even belonging to certain religious groups is susceptible to being punished. All this goes on in violation of Article 19 of the Eritrea Constitution, which allows for freedom of conscience, religion, movement, assembly, organization and expression of opinion.

It is not only political prisoners who are incarcerated, the entire Eritrean population is being intimidated, frightened into remaining silent and to obey their rulers.

For this reason, the 18th September is a date for remembering those who are in detention without charge and being beaten, and tortured regularly in the prisons. It is day to remember those killed by the security guards at Wei, Adi Aboito and elsewhere in the valleys or hillside.

Eritrean democrats have been the victims of torture and beatings in prisons and have been deprived of political rights and civil liberties for the last half century. Ato Woldab Woldemariam, the father of the Eritrean people, sought asylum in Egypt in the mid-1950s and spent 36 years in exile for his political beliefs

"...I also have in me the courage to die for my political beliefs, for the cause of liberty of my country, and for the genuine interest of my brothers and sisters." Woldeab Woldemariam in Hanti, Eritrea, Issue#, August 22, 1951



Since then the struggle to protect basic democratic rights and civil liberties has never ceased. It continued after the liberation. The government tried to crush the democratic movement on 18th September 2001.

Since then there have been many reports by Amnesty International and e-mail source from Asmara documenting arbitrary arrests ; prisoners being killed or massacred in the detention centre at Wei and at Adi Aboute prison. . There are also similar stories of torture by security interrogators and of appalling prison conditions e.g. at Gelalo (a hard labour camp prison) etc.

There have been strong condemnations by the international community and by human rights activists across the world. Members of the European Parliament (2004 ), Inter-Parliamentary Union (2003, 2004 and 2005) the African Commission on Human Rights (2004) , individual US Congressman ( 2005), The United Kingdom Parliament ( 2004) and other international communities etc, have voiced their criticism of Eritrea's human-rights record by adopting resolutions urging the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to release all political prisoners or to bring then to justice.

Eritrean human rights activists in the Diaspora, AI, (UK, USA, Netherlanders etc), Human Right Watch and other human rights activities and civil liberties campaigners, have played a significant role in raising the public awareness of human rights abuses in Eritrea. They have publicised individual cases, organised demonstrations, petitions and forums to highlight the human rights situation and prison conditions. etc.

So far, the Eritrean government has done nothing to improve its human rights records. Martin Hill has said:

  • " Amnesty International has been unsuccessful in getting the Eritrea government to respond to these and other allegations of human rights abuses, including the detention of dissidents and journalists and religious persecution". (Capua, 2005)
  • In fact the government denies any human rights violations of detention of political prisoners and journalists in direct contradiction to the annual reports released by AI and Freedom House. Freedom House rated the country on political rights and on civil rights on a scale of 1 to 7 (in which 1 is the most free and 7 the least free ). The report it released on March 31, 2005 indicated that the Eritrean government is one of the world's most repressive regime. In 2005 the country’s rating for political rights is 7 ( the lowest grade), for civil liberties it is 7.

    The factors which have greatly contributed to the lowest rating on political rights are:

    It is sad to see a country, that had more political rights and civil liberties, under the British colonial administration.


    Historical background: Birth of Political Rights and Civil Liberties


    Before 1941 as an Italian colony Eritreans were deprived of civil liberties by Italian colonial laws. For example, it was a criminal offence to hold a public meeting without seventy-two hours' notice to the police, and it was also an offence to print without a licence, to control the press, ( Clarence Smith, J. A 1955). Under Italian rule there was censorship and Italian colonialism discouraged Eritrean writers from publishing.

    With the defeat of Italy by the Allied Force political rights and civil liberties began to flourish between 1941 and 1951, as the British sought to build support among the Eritrean middle classes as a counterweight to the Italian settler population. In the history of the Eritrean people this period represented its greatest freedom and political activity. New laws under the British administration allowed freedom of expression and political parties. As a result of this in the 1940s there were more than seven political parties: the Muslim League, the Pro-Italy Party, the Italy-Eritrea Party, the Independent Eritrea Party, the Unionist Party and the Liberal Progressive Party. Today there is only one (authoritarian) the People's Front for Democracy and Justice Party.

    The period between 1941 and 1951 Ghirmai called " the years of revival" (Tesfai, 1999) because during the decade of British rule Eritrea did not have only one newspaper as now Hadas Eritrea but several : The Eritrean Weekly News, its Tigrinya version Semunawi Gazeta; Etiopya (Amharic) Hibret (Tigrina), Voice of Eritrea ( Sawt-al Eritrea); Dimits Eritrea and Hanti Eritrea.

    British law not only allowed freedom of the press but also guaranteed Eritrean workers the right to strike. Evidence of this is well documented in the history of the Eritrean working class. For example Killer ( 1999) writes how in 1949 dockworkers struck in Massawa, glassworkers struck in Asmara and there was a six week's strike for equal-benefit etc. (Killion, 1999,.285p.)

    Further, in the 1950s when Eritrea had a Federal Constitution, this Constitution contained a list of fundamental human rights prescribed by UN resolution. The question of respect for human rights and freedom of others under this Constitution of December 1950 was highlighted by ( Clarence Smith, J. A (1955) in his article.

    By the time of Federation the General Union of Eritrean Workers in Asmara was formed to protect the right of the workers to organize and strike. Woldeab Woldemariam was elected as president. The union had 4, 000 paid members and 6, 000 more association members (Killion 284).

    The political rights and civil liberties came to an end, in 1958, with the Ethiopian army’s violent suppression of the general strike and demonstration which caused 88 deaths and 440 wounded. Following this, Ethiopian law was imposed and all forms of human rights were violated.

    As a result of this strike, the Union of Eritrea Labour Syndicates was banned. The workers' union and its newspaper " The voice of Eritrea" were prohibited by the Ethiopian Emperor. Newspapers were closed down and freedom of speech and assembly were drastically curtailed. Political parties with the exception of the Unionist Party ceased.

    The suppression of basic political rights and civil liberties led to the birth of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka) in the late 1950s and to the launch of the armed struggle in 1961. After the 30 years of liberation war, the dream of every citizen vanished when a similar history to that of 1958 was repeated in September 2001.

    Period of repression

    History show that the Front (EPLF) which led to the victory of the independence struggle never had a culture of democracy and respect for human rights during the liberation struggle. As a result of this tradition of intolerance, soon after independence around 3000 leaders and supporters of the Popular Army were arrested for their strong protest to the EPLF's policy. Some of them are still in detention, after 12 years. in the notorious colonial prison of Adi Quala or Nakura An unknown number have since disappeared. The Eritrean government has never ceased to suppress all opposition. For example a mutiny which took place in 1994 by the war- wounded heroes was crushed brutally.

    Throughout the 1990s, Amnesty International, the US State Department and others have charged Eritrea with the repression of minority religions, particularly the Jehovah's Witnesses (who were stripped of their basic civic rights in 1994). There have also been abductions and disappearance of Jihad members of the opposition etc There was some hope of improving this record because of the Constitution adopted in May 1997, which gave some freedom of expression and allowed for the existence of such private newspapers as Meqaleh,, Keste Debena, Zemen, Setit, Admas. It also allowed the University of Asmara students and others to form a union..

    According to the Freedom house report of 1998-1999 the rate for political rights was 6, for civil liberties it was 4. T hese figures suggest that Eritrea was freer than today.

    However, since then repression has escalated. There has been a crackdown on Asmara University students for protesting against the government’s summer work program and the arrest of University of Asmara student union president Semere Kesete. . Several dissidents were arrested in 2001 for suspected support for the G15. There has been also the persecution of evangelical Christians in the past two years. Many people have bee abducted from their home, workplace, street, wedding ceremony, church service etc. on the grounds of evading conscription.

    All of them are detained without charge or trial in violation of the Constitution of Eritrea, Article 17 (4). This section stipulates that every person held in detention must be brought before a court of law within forty-eight hours of arrest, and no person shall be held in custody beyond such period without the authority of the court.

    Regarding prisoners’ condition there are always reports of torture and abuse while they are held for an unlimited time in prison. Thereafter they are sent to hard -labour camps such as Galelao or executed as a punishment just as the Ethiopian rulers did deliberately to destroy the spirit of struggle, for example hanging captured fighters as the picture below shows. (fig.3

    The Eritrean government, instead of promoting democracy and justice has turned into a repressive apparatus, committing crimes against its citizens to subjugate and destroy the spirit of the Eritrean people for justice and democracy. An atrocity was committed on 4th of November 2004 in Adi Abeyto army prison. This was reported by the reliable sources and has been condemned by the international community and by Eritrean communities demonstrating across the world. However, the Eritrean government after claiming that the report was an Ethiopian fabrication called the victims "gangsters" and said that the story was exaggerated.


    fig.3. Hanging captured EPLF fighters in the centre of the Eritrean villages.

    On 10th of June 2005 another tragic story was reported from Asmara in connection with the massacre of 161 young Eritreans at Wei. Regarding this there was no response from the Eritrean government. It occurred in a remote area but the Eritrean government tried to divert people’s attention from the massacre by mobilising supporters to show their sympathy for 40 innocent Ethiopians massacred in cold blood in Addis Ababa in June 2005. It condemned the Ethiopian government through its media EriTv. Sophia Tesfamariam wrote about the cold -blooded of the Ethiopians. She has never asked why Isias massacred 161 Eritrean citizens on 10th June 2005 at We'i,

    On 12th of September there was a similar brief report associated with pictures on Asmarino. com that showed the killing of one young man who tried to avoid from going to Sawa and was shot dead by government armed forces as a punishment of those who rebel against the government.

    (See note 6 for the full story about the pictures). Of course there are many similar crimes in the valleys, hillsides and prisons across the country.

    fig.4 Source: Asmarino.com (2005)


    The Eritrean government has denied the above report of 12th of September but on 14th September the Ministry of Information admitted that there had been a robbery reported in the street mentioned five months earlier but there no other incidents (or gunfire for that matter). On the other hand the government admitted that there had been reported cases of murder in the Central Region (Zoba Maakel) over the previous four months. (Ministry of information:2005,)

    .Under the present government the capital city and other towns are also guarded by government army forces like a prison and no one is allow ed to leave the city without notice. Therefore it would be much better to call the state of Eritrea a prison state instead.

    As a result, since independence, many thousands have been forced to flee the brutally repressive rule. The Eritrean government has tried to restrict this by giving orders to parent to send their children to Sawa or be arrested which happened to parents in the remote areas of Zoba Debub and Gash Barka regions , in August 2005.

    To conclude:

    Let us stand together and let our voices be heard! Justice to our prisoners!




  • Fig.1 Aboi Weldeab Weldemariam: 36 years in exile (source of the original picture.) http://myweb.students.wwu.edu/~gabrebw/cs102/people.htm
  • Fig.2 AtoWeldeab Weldemariam: www.shabia.com
  • Fig.3 Hanging captured EPLF fighters in the centre of the Eritrean villages. http://home.planet.nl/~hans.mebrat/eritrea-history.htm
  • Fig. 4. Photographs of Death (source www.corriere.it )http://news9.asmarino.com/content/view/551/86/
  • Notes

    1. To mention some Eritrean Journalists in the 1940s

    a, Weldeab Weldemariam was editor of the Tigrinya version Semunawi Gazeta

    b. Mohammed Seid Mohammed, Elias Teklu and Siraj Abdu were editors( Voice of Eritrea)

    c. Sheikh Omer Qadi, was editor ( Unione E Progresso)

    2..Toture methods used by the Ethiopian ruler

    a..Torture on information found from Nharnet. Com. Woldedawit Temesghen who was a prisoner in the 1960s and mid 1970s described the prison condition and methods of torture during interrogation 1960s and 1970s. According to him, the first 40 days of interrogation by the security personnel were the worst. The ordeal the political prisoners faced in the 1960s included : incessant physical torture until loss of consciousness; dippings in very dirty water for several minutes; giving electric shocks in the most delicate parts of the body; locking in morgues for several days in the company of decaying bodies; being thrown into very cold and usually muddy places; being taken to the outskirts of the city and asking to say the whole "truth" or choose burial in the graves dug during nocturnal interrogations etc. Nharenet team (Feb. 6, 2005)

    b.. May Dines included in her book the following information: Torture during interrogation is commonplace, including: Electric shocks to testicles, breaking of arms and legs beatings trussing and burning repeadly pushing the detainee's head into a bucket of blood there is no medical treatment even for those whose bones are broken on sever bleeding ( May Dines 319) Mary Dines (1988) 'Ethiopian violations of human rights in Eritrea ' In Cliffe & Davidson (1988) The long struggle of Eritrea for independence & constructive peace

    3. Atrocious prison conditions: in Post Liberation Eritrea

    a.An Eritrean deported from Malta in October 2002, speaking of detention in Adi Abeto prison.

    Extract from Amnesty International Canada Reports AFR 64/003/2004
    19 May 2004

    "We were beaten and mostly were tied in the 'helicopter' position and tortured in groups of 10 to 15. We were tied up day and night, except for three short food and toilet breaks. I was tied up for two weeks. One of us got very ill with bronchitis and there was no medical treatment… Some got paralysed in the arms and legs." An Eritrean deported from Malta in October 2002, speaking of detention in Adi Abeto prison.

    "You can't ask about prisoners…You have no right to ask." Security officer responding to a group of mothers of detainees, Asmara, mid-2003.

    "In July 2003 we were taken to Dahlak Kebir island, 130 in a truck, lying on top of one another, then on to a boat to the island. Torture continued there for some prisoners – 'helicopter' and 'Jesus Christ'. We did hard labour – building houses, carrying goods off boats, cleaning soldiers' quarters, from about 8am to 2pm each day. I was accused of spying for Ethiopia [because of being of part-Ethiopian origin] and was tortured by 'ferro' method for a week." Former detainee on Dahlak Kebir island.

    "The food was very poor and looked like washing-up water. It consisted of half-cooked bread, lentils, and half-cooked unsalted cabbage, in very small quantities. It was placed in a communal bowl in our cell where we had to eat by hand – about six spoonfuls' amount each for 26 prisoners. We were given half a cup of tea in the morning, and two meals a day at noon and 4pm. We had tap water to drink, but not enough. There was an open toilet in the cell. We could only wash once in two weeks. We slept on the floor, which was often damp, with two thin blankets. Many of us were suffering from stress. I had arthritis, like many other prisoners. After complaining for a long time I was finally taken to hospital for tests but only given aspirin. The elderly prisoners with us - some of them over 80 years old, such as Suleiman Musa Haji and Sunabera Mohamed Demena - were all in very poor health." Former detainee in Wenjel Mermera prison in Asmara, early 2004.

    "After seven months in Dahlak Kebir island, in July 2003 we were taken to the mainland in small groups and taken to different prisons. I was sent to Haddis Ma'askar. We were kept in handcuffs. I was held in a 2x2 metre underground cell holding myself and another prisoner. It was very hot, with no light and we had no shoes. There were about 1,000 prisoners there, some in big cells holding 200. The building was completely underground, fairly recently built. Prisoners were there for different offences – deserting from the army, spying for Ethiopia, etc. We were occasionally taken to work – fetching firewood, for example. We had to perform toilet functions in the fields around. Other prisoners were told we were 'Jihad' (armed Islamists) and they did not know we had come from Malta. I escaped with another prisoner during a toilet break and reached the Sudan border after three days." Former detainee in Haddis Ma'askar army prison near Sawa, ex-Malta deportee.

    Source: Amnesty International Canada
    http://www.amnesty.ca/resource_centre/reports/view.php?load=arcview&article=1563&c=Resource+Centre+Reports. Recent Reports AFR 64/003/2004
    19 May 2004

    b. Extract from International Day against torture: Who is going to Stop torture in Eritrea?

    ……To this, none of the detainees in these prisoners are allowed to see the sun or come to the surface and no one has been released even though some of them have been detained for more than 10 years. There are unconfirmed reports on death of detainees as the result of torture and severe detention conditions. Source asmarino. com Latest News Feeds http://news9.asmarino.com/content/view/340/104.

    4. Eritrea: Photographs of Death 12th of September 2005. These pictures were taken in Asmara a few month ago. The photographer is a diplomat who passed the pictures to the 'Corriere ' newpaper. This is his story: "As I was parking my car in a street at the centre of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, I saw from the other part of the road a truck being filled by a score of young people who were being herded by soldiers. I knew it was a raid -- the young were being picked off the streets to be sent out to the hated army camp of Sawa. One of the boys panicked and tried to escape by crossing to the other side of road. Unfortunately he did not make it. He'd been hit by series of machine gun bullets. Then a man in uniform approached him and finished him off. It seemed to me that was a punishment against those who rebel against the government.

    5. Post-liberation new prisons. The following prisons have been built in the past 4 years: Wenjel Mirmera, Several army prisons with underground cells, such as Haddis Maaskar and Mai Temenei, Mai Serwa, Tsesrat prison, Track B a former US storage facility near the air port in Asmara, Adi about, Gelalo, Wi'e , Ad Umer etc are some among the many prisons established by the Eritrean government after September 2001.

    6. During the Dergue rule, the following security prisons were build Expo, Maryam Ghimbi, the Governor's Palace in Asmara and Sembel military base

    7. Eritrea's modern prison system was created by the Italian colonial administration in the 1890. One of the prisons, built in those days, is Nocra in the Dahalk Archipelo. Political prisoners were sent to this prison. This colonial prison is still used by the present government. Others were built in Asmara, this might be Carcelle, Keren and Massaw. Carcello is also still used by the present government. In the 1950s security prison was build at Adi-Qwala which is still also used by the present government.