Eritrea’s Worsening Human Rights Abuses and Israeli Concerns
Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Eritrea’s Worsening Human Rights Abuses and Israeli Concerns

Woldu Mikael

Eritrean human rights abuses have worsened in recent months as the government introduces more deadly measures to stop citizens from fleeing the country. Abuses range from torture to murder, imprisonment without trial, disappearances, and mass starvation.

Any form of dissent is fatal. The only way to express anger is by running off across the border defying shoot-to-kill orders. Refugees forced to return to the country face the ultimate punishment.

Israeli official report states returnees “will be placed in rows and shot or thrown into torture chambers.” In recent weeks, many have been pouring into Israel in search of human dignity, justice and a little liberty. The positive sign is that Israel has been welcoming the refugees blaming ruthless Eritrean despotism as the root cause of the influx.

Contrary to Eritrean government claims, the refugees are not traitors but real heroes who are crying ‘NO’ to tyranny and servitude. Nor are they deserters or draft dodgers as claimed by the Eritrean Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Tesfamariam Tekeste. The Eritrean refugees understand that Eritrea has the right to defend itself through national service or any other appropriate means. But no Eritrean believes the government has to starve or terrorize the people to achieve its objective.

Here is how a 16 year old female Eritrean refugee describes here ordeal to a human rights group in Europe, “My three sisters were physically, emotionally and sexually abused in Eritrean army camps. To avoid further torture, my sisters had to flee the country. In retaliation for their escape from military camps, the authorities not only tortured and imprisoned my parents but also closed our shop in order to starve our family to death as a punishment. Risking everything, my parents later arranged my escape as they could not bear the thought and the responsibility of my being tortured and abused.”

The Eritrean strongman, Isayas Afeworki, justifies his actions as a requirement until his border dispute with Ethiopia is resolved. Human rights advocates are dismayed by such rationale. Mr. Isayas´s core motive appears to be to cling to power by all means possible. The fact remains Eritreans do not need tyranny and mass imprisonment to do what is right in defense of their homeland.

Two thirds of the population needs external food aid, according to UN estimates. But the government continues to refuse aid under outdated and unworkable self-reliance policies. The people are daily intimidated and starved as a means of controlling them and preempting any popular uprising. The government treats every Eritrean as a potential enemy that must be controlled or liquidated.

Aggression is at its worst once an individual is arrested and imprisoned incommunicado for an indefinite period of time because of his/her political views or faith. Thousands – perhaps tens of thousands - of prisoners of conscience are rotting in gruesome conditions in prisons throughout the country.

Many are kept in dungeons and metal shipping containers under smoldering heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Many die as a result, or become partially or fully paralyzed; one of the victims is the renowned Gospel singer, Helen Berhane. Sanitation is said to be mostly non-existent. There is no medical treatment for injured torture victims.

Amnesty International, has documented various forms of torture including widespread rape of young female prisoners. Amnesty has interviewed scores of refugees who managed to flee the country and sought protection in foreign lands.

There are several methods of torture reported by Amnesty International and confirmed by other independent human rights bodies. The most commonly used method is the tying up of the limbs with rope – known as "THE HELICOPTER".

"THE HELICOPTER": the victim is tied with a rope by hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped or upper garments. This is a punishment allocated for a particular number of days - the maximum reported being 55 days in the Dahlak Kebir island prison. The prisoner is tied in this position 24 hours a day, except for two or three short breaks.

"OTTO" (Italian for eight): the victim is tied with hands behind the back and left face down on the ground, but without the legs tied.
"Jesus Christ": the victim is stripped to the waist, wrists tied, and standing on a block with hands tied to a tree branch: the block is removed, leaving the victim suspended with the feet just off the ground in a crucifix-like posture. Beatings are inflicted on the bare back. This is said to be an extremely severe torture. This method was first reported from Adi Abeto prison in 2003.

"FERRO" (Italian iron): The wrists are bound behind the back with metal handcuffs while the victim lies on the bound face down and is beaten with sticks or whipped with an electric wire on the back and buttocks.

"TORCH" or "NUMBR EIGHT": inside a special torture room, the victim is tied up by wrists behind the back and with the feet bound, a stick is placed under the knees and supported on a framework on both sides horizontally, and the body is turned upside down with the feet exposed. The soles of the feet are beaten with sticks or whipped.

ELECTRIC SHOCKS AND SEXUAL TORTURE: In addition to electric shocks during interrogations, a coca-cola bottle filled with water is tied to the testicles.

RAPE AND SEXUAL SLAVERY: Amnesty International and other human rights bodies have reported sexual violence against female conscripts. Some of the new female conscripts were selected by commanders for sex under duress to serve as sex slaves. They were said to be threatened with heavy military duties or being denied home leave.

The following is part of a testimony recorded by Amnesty International of a former national service conscript who was tortured in Eritrean prison for his political views:

"I was beaten on the first day in detention. Beating is a normal thing. I was kicked on any part of my body. Then I was tied for three days in the "otto" method. My feet were tied, and my hands were tied separately behind my back, and I was left outside in this position for three days continuously, lying on my front, except for short periods for two-meal times and toilet breaks each day…

"I saw others tied too, some very tightly. I saw one whose veins in his arms burst and blood flowed out. They just left him there and forgot about him. When the veins burst, they took him away and we didn´t know what happened to him. Sometimes the veins swelled up because of the sun, and burst.

This former Eritrean conscript, whose name is withheld to protect his family, added that he and his fellow inmates once saw three other recruits executed before their eyes. They were told by security officers that the victims were traitors but they were not told what the charges were. He said the executed had no trial and "we didn´t know who they were or what they had done."

Sources: Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Israeli media.