Former detainee on Dahlak Kebir island.

Source ERITREA:'You have no right to ask'Government resists scrutiny on human rights

AFR 64/003/2004
19 May 2004
Atrocious prison conditions

"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.

Political prisoners are held in numerous built or make-shift prisons throughout the country, mostly secret with access prohibited and not officially designated as prisons. Many of these prisons are underground. They are under the control of the military or the internal security service, including at the main Sawa army base. Some political prisoners are held incommunicado in secret security sections of official police stations or of officially-designated prisons (such as in Sembel prison in Asmara). In contrast, prisoners for suspected ordinary crimes in official civilian prisons and police stations are normally allowed family visits and food, and their conditions broadly conform to international standards.

Members of the armed forces and national service conscripts are held in military prisons, including custodial "rehabilitation centres" in army units. One of the most frequently-named prisons holding recently-arrested political prisoners is Adi Abeto prison near Asmara. This is used for conscripts, returned asylum seekers, and members of minority churches.

The security service is also said to control many secret "safe houses" in Asmara and other towns which are used for short-term detention and interrogation.

Metal shipping containers, brought from Assab and Massawa ports and used elsewhere for ordinary purposes such as for storage or even as shops, offices or homes, are now widely used to accommodate the expanding number of prisoners and also for punishment purposes. They have been reported at Sawa military training centre (where 57 religious prisoners were held in containers in mid-2003), Adi Abeto prison, Dahlak Kebir prison, Mai Serwa, Alla near Decamare, Mai Edaga near Decamhare, Mai Temenei in Asmara, Tehadasso army prison, and other prisons.

Secret Prisons in Eritrea

- Wenjel Mirmera ("special investigation"), a special security section in the 2nd police station in Asmara , which itself is known as Karchele (from carceri, the Italian word for prison);
- a special security section in the 6th police station in Asmara;
- an 800-inmate prison on Dahlak Kebir, the main Dahlak island on the Red Sea, 7 kilometres from the main town of Nakua: used for army deserters, military and political prisoners and consisting of eight large iron-sheet buildings;
- several army prison with underground cells, such as Haddis Ma'askar and Mai Temenei;
- Tsererat prison in Asmara, mainly for EPLF veterans, held in underground cells;
- "Tract B" (also known as "Track B"), a former US storage facility near the airport in Asmara, holding EPLF veterans, conscripts, alleged armed Islamists, and people accused or forging identity documents or smuggling army deserters out of the country.

Conditions of detention for political prisoners in these secret prisons, as described by released or escaped prisoners, are extremely harsh. Many prisoners are held in crowded underground cells where they hardly ever see daylight, and many are reportedly infected with body lice and diarrhoea. Prisoners suffer extremely dirty and often damp conditions, where they sleep on the floor with dirty blanket coverings, and are provided with little more than dry bread, sometimes cooked lentils, unclean drinking water and hardly any water to wash or bathe.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has no access to any Eritrean prisoners or to these prisons – only to Ethiopian prisoners wishing to repatriate, who are usually held separately in other prisons.

Many prisoners are said to have died in custody as a result of torture or absence of medical treatment. There are no inquests into deaths of prisoners and families are reportedly not informed.

Prisoners held in shipping containers are locked up for almost 24 hours a day. Children are held with adults. Containers, which contain no cell furniture, are overcrowded and become extremely hot and suffocating during the day and very cold at night, with little room to sleep or move. The conditions are unhygienic and infectious diseases spread rapidly, especially through absence of toilet facilities and the prevalence of diarrhoea among prisoners forced to use a bucket inside the container for a toilet. One former prisoner told of detainees being forced to lie in diarrhoea as a punishment.

Dahlak Kebir island prison conditions

"We were put in zinc-iron buildings and given 3 litres of water a day and bread twice a day. We could only wash about once a month. It was very hot. We were not allowed to talk and were punished with 'helicopter'. We did very hard work in the mornings, on buildings in the port.

"There were other prisoners there from different prisons on the mainland, about 750, including 12 women (not ex-Malta). They were not criminals. Some had refused national service or escaped from the army, about 80 others had complained about land issues, others about their salaries, or they were accused of forgery though not charged or tried. Some prisoners were mentally ill, others were sick with tuberculosis and other diseases or heart problems. There was no medical treatment except a few tablets."

"There was one building for lowland Muslims who had been transferred from being held a long time in another prison on the mainland. There was also a prison for sick prisoners, though no medical facilities, only a few tables, administered by a volunteer prisoner. Most prisoners were ill with diarrhoea because there was a communal toilet bowl in each cell spreading infection, and the water was dirty. We were only allowed to the outside toilet twice a day."

"Walta Haile, an ex-Malta deportee who had been tortured, tried to commit suicide at Massawa by tying his own hands and jumping into the sea [on 15 December 2003]. He got caught in the ship's propeller and his face was badly cut. He was taken out of the sea and we didn't hear of him again, maybe he died."