Eritrea: Torture, 'disappearances' and religious persecution as government resists scrutiny on human rights

Noting the crackdown on those calling for democratic reform which began two and a half years ago, Amnesty International is calling on the government of Eritrea to release all prisoners of conscience, eradicate torture, ensure all prisoners are treated humanely in custody, and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief and the freedom of the press.

The report includes testimony and sketched illustrations from former prisoners of various methods of torture used on them. Prisoners have been tied with ropes for days or weeks in contorted painful positions with nick-names such as “the helicopter”(hands and feet tied behind the back, lying face-down on the ground, usually outside and for up to several weeks), and “Jesus Christ” (a position resembling crucifixion). Prisoners are tortured as the standard punishment for evading conscription, for military offences, or while being interrogated about suspected political opposition.

A man detained in Adi Abeto prison reported:

“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.”

Religious persecution has also escalated in the past two years, particularly against Jehovah’s Witnesses (who were stripped of their basic civic rights in 1994), evangelical and Pentecostal churches and other minority churches who are not among the four religions officially recognised by the state. Members of these churches have been jailed and tortured to make them abandon their faith. They are often persecuted because of their faith-based refusal of military service - the government does not recognise the right to conscientious objection. Muslims have also been targeted, some held in secret incommunicado detention, for many years on suspicion of links with an Islamist armed opposition group operating from Sudan.

On 24 January 2004 police in Asmara arrested 38 members of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation gathered to worship in a private home, including Children's rights and a 90-year-old man. Ten were released after a few days but 24 have still not been released and have been held incommunicado since their arrest. No charges have been brought against them and they have not appeared before a court. They are being pressed to abandon their faith.

Prisoners are held in atrocious conditions - damp underground cells, overcrowded and sweltering shipping containers, secret security sections of official police stations or prisons, military prisons and make-shift rural prison camps. They have a poor diet, little water for drinking or washing, and virtually no medical treatment for torture injuries or illness.

Prisoners of conscience in Eritrea include former liberation movement leaders who helped to win Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991.The government has branded former foreign minister Haile Woldetensae and other leading critics arrested in September 2001 as “traitors”, for supposedly collaborating with Ethiopia during and after the bitter war of 1998-2000. Ten independent journalists were also detained and called by the government, “mercenaries and spies for Ethiopia” (a totally unsubstantiated accusation). The entire private press has been banned.

None of these prisoners has been charged with any offence or presented to a court. They have not been seen by their families since then and the authorities refuse to say where they are detained or how they are treated. Thousands of other political detainees are also virtually “disappeared”.

Amnesty International was informed that a group of mothers of detainees and the “disappeared” were told, “You have no right to ask [about them]”. The government routinely dismisses concerns and criticisms backed by well-documented evidence as “malicious smears” and “misinformation”.

Increasing numbers of refugees are fleeing Eritrea. These include many torture victims as well as those fleeing compulsory national military service for all men and Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights between 18 and 40 years (which has been extended indefinitely). Others are members of religious minorities, people who have expressed (peaceful) opposition to the government, ands those suspected of supporting armed opposition groups in neighbouring countries. Amnesty International calls on the international community to provide full protection for Eritrean refugees.

Amid continuing tensions over the border with Ethiopia and fears of a new war, Amnesty International’s report warns of a possible repeat of human rights abuses committed in the previous war by both sides against civilians and prisoners of war.

Amnesty International UK Media Director Lesley Warner said:

“President Issayas Afewerki’s one-party government has stopped all dialogue on human rights and rejected any scrutiny of violations. The government’s refusal to be open and accountable about its human rights practices is contrary to human rights safeguards in the Eritrean Constitution and laws, and to the international human rights treaties Eritrea has ratified.”

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