Reporters Without Borders today called on the Eritrean government to urgently produce evidence that three journalists illegally held since September 2001 are still alive, as information from credible sources indicates they died in the course of the past 20 months in a detention centre at a place called Eiraeiro, in a remote northeastern desert.
The organisation wrote to the Eritrean embassy in France on 9 October asking the government to provide an explanation “within a reasonable period” about these “very disturbing reports.” If we do not get a reply from you in the near future, our organisation will publish this information,” said the letter, which did not receive a response.
“This silence on the part of the Eritrean authorities is inhumane and intolerable,” Reporters Without Borders said today. “Dozens of political prisoners have disappeared into jails run by the armed forces. They include at least 13 journalists, of whom there has been no word for nearly five years.”
The organisation added: “We now have extremely disturbing revelations in the report on the Eiraeiro detention centre. No foreign government should continue to have any dealings with President Issaias Afeworki and his government without insisting on serious, documented explanations.”
The report on Eiraeiro, located in the Sheib subzone of the Northern Red Sea administrative region, was posted on the Internet in August. It contains precise and verifiable information about the exact location of the detention centre, where at least 62 political prisoners were said to be held, including former ministers, another senior officials, high-ranking military officers, government opponents and eight of the 13 journalists held since a round-up in September 2001.
Initially published in the Tigrinya language on 17 August on aigaforum.com, an Ethiopian website, it was translated into English and posted on 31 August on awate.com, an Eritrean opposition site that is edited in the United States. Reporters Without Borders knows the sources for the information in the report, although it will not identify them for security reasons, and believes them to be credible and serious.
The Eiraeiro detention centre is said to have been built in this northeastern desert in 2003. An Eritrean journalist in exile told Reporters Without Borders that it is “one of the country’s hottest areas.” To get to Eiraeiro, you reportedly have to walk for two hours from the nearest road, linking Serjeka and Gahtelay, northwest of Filfil Selomuna. Consisting of 62 cells measuring 3 metres by 3 metres, it is said to contain detainees who were previously held in Embatkala, in the east of the country.
The prisoners named in the report include Seyoum Tsehaye (or Fsehaye), a freelance journalist (cell No. 10), Dawit Habtemichael, deputy editor and co-founder of Meqaleh (cell No. 12), a journalist identified by the first name “Yosief” or “Yusuf,” who is almost certainly Yusuf Mohamed Ali, the editor of Tsigenay (cell No. 9), Medhane Tewelde (almost certainly Medhane Haile), deputy editor and co-founder of Keste Debena (cell No. 8), Temesghen Gebreyesus, journalist and member of the Keste Debena board (cell No. 23), Said Abdulkader, editor and founder of Admas (cell No. 24), and Emanuel Asrat, editor of Zemen (cell No. 25).
An Eritrean former political prisoner now in exile told Reporters Without Borders on condition on anonymity that Fessahaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a playwright and journalist with the newspaper Setit, is now also being held at Eiraeiro, in cell No. 18. He was previously held in Dongolo prison in the south of the country, in an underground cell measuring just 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres, and 2.5 metres tall, lit by a bulb that was never turned off.
One of his friends, who said he was held at the same time as Yohannes and who now lives in exile, told Reporters Without Borders that Yohannes was subjected to various forms of torture including having his finger-nails ripped out.
They are all part of a group of 13 journalists who were rounded up by the police during the week of 18 to 25 September 2001 after the government decided to “suspend” all of Eritrea’s privately-owned media and ordered the arrest of everyone considered to a member of the opposition.
The report says at least nine of the detainees at Eiraeiro have died as a result of “various illnesses, psychological pressure or suicide.” They include three of the journalists named above - Yusuf Mohamed Ali, who reportedly died on 13 June, Medhane Haile, who reportedly died in February, and Said Abdulkader, who reportedly died in March 2005.
All of the Eritreans consulted by Reporters Without Borders said the information contained in the report was “entirely plausible,” at the very least, even if it could not currently be verified. An Eritrean journalist now in exile said that when he was held at a detention centre like Eiraeiro in 2000: “Many prisoners held at the same time as me died as a result of malaria attacks or other illnesses. Their bodies were thrown in unmarked common graves. In some cases, the authorities led their families to believe they had escaped or were killed by Ethiopians.”
The report contains harrowing descriptions of conditions at Eiraeiro. Most of the detainees are chained by their hands. They sleep on the ground and have no bed linen. Their heads and beards are shaved once a month. Since February, they have been let out of their cells for an hour a day but without being allowed contact with other prisoners. Any attempt to converse with the camp’s guards is immediately punished.
Since 2001, Reporters Without Borders and other human rights and press freedom groups have been calling for the release of Eritrea’s political prisoners, including the 13 journalists arrested in the round-up of September of that year. The Eritrean government claims they are being held as part of a parliamentary investigation into “spying” and “treason.”
The “suspension” of the privately-owned media came as the second war with Ethiopia was ending in 2001, when the independent press relayed calls for democratisation by 15 senior ruling party members known as the “Group of 15” or “G-15” and the government reacted on 18 September 2001 by cracking down on the G-15 and the opposition. After 10 of the detained journalists staged a hunger strike, they were transferred in April 2002 to detention centres in undisclosed locations.
From left to right : Said Abdulkader, Medhane Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali