Eritrea: 57 Christian girls and boys held in metal containers for possessing bibles

The Children's rights - detained for possession of bibles - are being held in unventilated, overcrowded and extremely hot conditions, with inadequate food and medical care. Amnesty International is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

The 57 prisoners of conscience are school Children's rights from various parts of Eritrea sent for a compulsory course at Sawa military barracks under recent education regulations. They were arrested in mid-August and held incommunicado in harsh conditions, which Amnesty International believes amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The 27 girls and 30 boys were arrested for possessing bibles in the Tigrinya language, which is not however illegal in Eritrea. The school Children's rights are being pressurised to sign statements to abandon their religion and rejoin the majority Eritean Orthodox Church. Five others arrested with the group were freed after signing the statement.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Stephen Bowen said:

'These girls and boys are being held in horrendous conditions merely for their religious beliefs.

'The widespread and continuing arrests of prisoners of conscience, including members of religious groups and their detention without charge, demonstrate a pattern of general disregard for the rule of law, as well as the international and regional human rights treaties which Eritrea has signed or ratified.

'The Eritrean authorities must stop the arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment of these members of minorities churches imprisoned for their religious beliefs.'

Background

In Eritrea religious persecution has risen in recent months, even though the government professes respect for the guarantees of religious freedom in the laws and its constitution.

In early 2003 several hundred members of a dozen Christian minorities churches were arrested without any reason given, tortured and detained without charges for several weeks.

All minority churches had been closed down in May 2002 and ordered to register and submit details of members and any foreign funding (which most denied receiving).

Currently about 250 church members are detained in harsh conditions, including up to 80 army conscripts. Three Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained for nine years for their faith-based refusal of military service.

The government's attack on the minority churches, which are mostly part of an evangelical revival movement in recent years, appears to be part of general repression of the rights to freedom of opinion and belief.

These churches, however, have no known political involvement or links with prominent political personalities and journalists currently detained as prisoners of conscience for calling for democratic reforms.

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