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In 1993, after centuries of foreign rule and a thirty-year war with Ethiopia, Eritrea was finally recognized as an independent state. In 1994 a draft of a constitution for the new state was presented, and a final version was written in 1997. However, as time passed the hopes regarding Eritrea began to fade away. According to the constitution, “democratic elections” were supposed to be held, and the governing party even changed its name to “The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice." However, the constitution was neither ratified nor implemented in laws, anticipated elections were repeatedly postponed for various security reasons, and relations with Europe were rapidly deteriorating.
A difficult war between 1998 and 2000 ended diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the border between them was practically sealed. Today, it is nearly impossible to obtain information from within Eritrea, but detailed reports published in recent years by the U.S. State Department and the UNCHR enable us to learn about the situation in the country and understand its implications.
In the past decade the Eritrean army has grown significantly and now controls other civil institutions in the state. In Eritrea, both men and women are forced into indefinite conscription. The law states that any person graduating from high school must be conscripted into the army, but there is no clear reference to the age of discharge. Many reports attest that youth - sometimes below the legal age of conscription - were enlisted to military or civil service, where they serve for many years without a prospective date of discharge. For their service they are paid a meager, unchanging salary, and the freedom of movement in severely restricted. Anyone caught opposing military service or trying to avoid it is sent to prison or executed on the spot - an authority granted to military commanders by the Eritrean government. This policy is exercised also towards anyone caught trying to leave the country without a permit. The families of renegades are jailed indefinitely, and only through paying bribes of thousands of dollars may they be released. Female Eritrean refugees around the world also report that rape was committed by the commanders in either civil or military service on an almost routine basis.
Additionally, soldiers in the Eritrean army perform public sector jobs in place of wage earning workers. There are also reports of commanders who order their soldiers to do private work for them or their families. Some soldiers are sent to their previous jobs, but within the framework of military service; they will therefore continue to receive inadequate wages compared with those earned as citizens.
Jailing and torture
Many in Eritrea are seeking their missing relatives. It is estimated that there are hundreds of people who are jailed without any documentation or report in the state. It is possible that those who are not jailed were murdered and not brought to burial. Among the missing persons are political and religious activists, as well as journalists and renegades who avoided military service.
A man named MisghinaGebretinsae was jailed in 2008 for belonging to Jehovah's Witnesses, a denomination which the Eritrean government refuses to officially recognize, and is therefore considered illegal (the only permitted religions in Eritrea are only the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the Eritrean Catholic Church and Islam). In 2010 alone there were reports of 2,500 arrests of religious persons. Many reports described political activists who died as a result of torture and neglect during imprisonment.
In the week before his death, Gebretinsae was held in solitary confinement. There is not a great deal of information as to the cause of death, but an inspection of jailing conditions may hint at the circumstances. Although Eritrean law forbids torture, it is institutionally practiced in jails and prisons. Reported forms of torture include forcing inmates to endure prolonged exposure to the sun (at a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius or 118 degrees Fahrenheit), tying both their hands together for many hours, walking barefoot on sharp objects, compressing many people into unventilated iron containers, and two notable techniques - the “diamond”, in which one is hung from a tree with hands tied behind the body, and the “helicopter”, in which one’s hands and legs are tied while facing down in the desert, while sugar is sprinkled on him/her in order to attract insects to his/her body.
During mass arrests, temporary jails were set up inside military camps. In these jails psychological torture was used to intimidate inmates. For example, guards would open and shut the prison doors, giving the impression that other inmates were being taken for torture investigations. Several prisoners were released only after their families paid off a substantial bribe, such as their house or land. Minors and adults are locked up together, and only those from families who work for the government are allowed regular visits. The authorities censored prisoners' complaints to the courts, and Red Cross representatives in the state were not granted access to its prisons.
In the U.S. State Department's report it is not explicitly specified that these actions follow a government directive, or even that the government is aware of them. However, its involvement is implied by the writers' repeated emphasis on the government's inaction and failure to bring the guilty ones to justice. Asylum seekers in Israel consider it to be self-evident that that the government is ordering and committing torture.
The citizens of Eritrea are not truly protected by the police. First and foremost, this is because the police are considered to be an arm of the regime. Additionally, much of the police force was coerced into service. The policemen earn a military salary - a single dollar a day, making corruption extremely prevalent in the country. Any request to the police must be accompanied with bribery, and police officers even cooperate with human trafficking groups and aid in smuggling people out of the country for money. In effect, there is nobody that is responsible for supervising the state employees and sanctioning them when necessary.
Freedom of the press
Since 2007, Eritrea has been ranked last in the World Press Freedom Index of the organization “Reporters without Borders”. The government owns all media channels: one newspaper published in three languages, three radio stations, and one television station. Any other publication requires specific government confirmation. In the past, many public houses, such as restaurants and hotels, purchased satellite dishes and broadcast international news. However, in recent years the government demanded that they remove the dishes. This trend has increased in recent years, and was followed by uprisings in North Africa. Furthermore, there are only three licensed Internet providers, all of which government owned. In the big cities, in which there are several Internet cafes, government inspectors may be frequently spotted, reviewing the users and the contents they consume.
The story of journalist Dawit Isaak is an example of restrictions placed on the press. Isaak is an Eritrean journalist, who received refugee status in Sweden during the war with Ethiopia, and after several years was also granted citizenship. After Eritrea became independent, Isaak returned to his country and began working there as a journalist. In 1998, when the war with Ethiopia broke out again and claimed many lives, Isaak traveled with his family to Sweden, but returned on his own to Eritrea to cover the events. In 2001 fifteen politicians published a letter calling for freedom and democracy in Eritrea - a letter that was published in the still existing free press. A few days later most of the letter’s writers and ten journalists involved in its publication were arrested. Among them was Isaak. Since then none were put on trial. Isaak has shown almost no signs of life since his arrest. One sign was given in 2002 when he was brought to hospital for treating wounds caused by injuries he suffered during while imprisoned.
Freedom of movement and the right to privacy
An Eritrean citizen who wishes to leave his/her city must submit a special request for approval prior to his travel. The requests of those belonging to certain groups are denied automatically, and they are never allowed to leave their area of residence. These include men under 54 and women under 47, children above the age of 11 and members of Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostalism, or any other group that is not permitted by the government. Entire families are also denied for fear that they would wish to escape together.
The government prevents travel to cities near the border, and the police frequently set up checkpoints within and between cities to examine citizens' travel documents, in an attempt to catch renegades. Eritrean asylum seekers claim that tourists in the state are only permitted a four-day stay, and any citizen caught talking to a tourist might be considered a spy, and subsequently arrested.
The government security forces use tracking measures and harassment methods of citizens without court approval, and against Eritrean law itself. Eritrean citizens are not allowed to have more than one SIM card, and even for that one must issue a government permit. All mail is checked and if it contains religious or political messages, it is confiscated and the recipient is called for questioning. The government follows citizens who do not attend party assemblies, in Eritrea and outside of it.
Academy and education
Academic activity in Eritrea is highly scrutinized, and various sanctions are imposed against professors who deviate from the authorized syllabi. The final year of high school education is spent in the military camp of Sawa. In order to graduate, students are required to take up vocational training, which is determined by the government based on their school grades. However, only those who finished their initial military training or those discharged on medical grounds are admitted to the final exams. In 2002 the central campus was shut down in Asmara, and the university was divided into seven central academic centers across the country, in order to prevent a concentration educated population in the capital city. Many students who wished to study abroad were denied their request.
In recent years the ministry of education began demanding that schools recruit students in their ninth year for various jobs during their summer holidays. These included road work, manufacturing and renovating school furniture and installing phone and electricity cables. In major cities, and especially in Asmara, one encounters many “street children”, who beg for money or work in prostitution. If the police catch them, they are sent to military or national service.
Why don’t they stay and fight from the inside?
Frequent claims are made that if one is truly a refugee, one would have stayed in Eritrea to fight to change the character of the country. It seems that those who make such claims are unaware of the situation in Eritrea, in which every attempt for criticism or protest results in severe punishments and sanctions. Two decades have passed since Eritrea became independent, and the hopes of the international community, as well as its own citizens, have failed. The small country turned its own people into prisoners, and it seems that with every passing year, President Afwerki lays additional blows on his citizens. The government classifies voices of opposition to it as homosexual, traitors, rapists, pedophiles and other socially unacceptable roles. Genuine opposition to the regime exists only outside of Eritrea and is made up of the myriads of refugees who fled it to other countries in Africa, Europe, the USA, Australia and other countries - among them Israel.
It seems that many who take part in the public debate regarding African refugees are lacking critical information about the circumstances that lead Eritrean asylum seekers to Israel. In order to better understand what is expected for Eritreans who are forced to return to their country, viewing this short Canadian produced video is recommended. It tells the story of several Eritrean refugees who were expelled from Malta to Eritrea: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbgxgRpGE38
It may be assumed that while reports and testimonies of asylum seekers are evidently clear about the structural human rights violations in the country, there are still classes with some degree of independence and ability to sustain them, and that the story of Eritrea is not purely dichotomous of victims and perpetrators. Nevertheless, reports, data and testimonies that are provided require significant international attention and criticism, including from Israel, which maintains strong diplomatic relations with the country.
Written by Noa Kaufman, Refugees and Asylum seekers coordinator at Kav LaOved - קו לעובד.