Credible Eritrean sources in Asmara and abroad have told Reporters Without Borders that poet and playwright Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, who was a journalist with the now-banned weekly Setit, died in detention on 11 January.
“The death of Fessehaye Yohannes would be an appalling tragedy, one made all the more unbearable by the accommodating attitude of European governments towards Eritrea,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This regime cannot be treated in a normal way as it is responsible for the disappearance and imprisonment of the best of its citizens. Firm demands are now needed.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The Eritrean government must prove to us that Joshua did not die or, at the very least, it should hand over his body to his wife and two sons. It should prove to us that journalists Medhanie Haile, Said Abdulkader and Yusuf Mohamed Ali are still alive, contrary to the reports we have received of their deaths. And it should tell us where it has imprisoned the journalists who are being held incommunicado, and explain the crimes it has committed with complete impunity since 2001.”
Fessehaye was paralysed in one hand and had been walking with difficulty for years. He reportedly succumbed to the extremely harsh conditions in which he had been held since his arrest in September 2001. After being held at an Asmara police station and an underground prison and after spells in the Halibet and Sembel hospitals in Asmara, he was reportedly taken to a prison camp at Eiraeiro, in the Northern Red Sea desert province. According to the information received by Reporters Without Borders, he was being held in cell No. 18 of this camp, where at least 62 political prisoners are being held in complete isolation and in inhumane conditions, guarded by about 100 soldiers of the 32nd division.
From police station to prison camp
Fessehaye surrendered to the police during the week of 18-23 September 2001, after around 10 other journalists and many members of the political opposition had been arbitrarily arrested and the privately-owned press had been “suspended” by the authorities. Ten detained journalists were transferred to undisclosed locations in April 2002, after going on hunger strike to demand the right to appear in court.
Their hands permanently manacled, the detainees at Eiraeiro are just given just bread, lentils, spinach or potatoes to eat. Their hair and beards are shaved once a month. All they have for beds are just two sheets. They sleep on the ground. Any contact with other prisoners or with guards is absolutely forbidden.
On the basis of information from credible sources, Reporters Without Borders reported last November that Said Abdulkader, co-founder and editor of the weekly Admas, Medhanie Haile, co-founder and deputy editor of the weekly Keste Debena, and Yusuf Mohamed Ali, the editor of the weekly Tsigenay, were among the nine prisoners who had died in this prison camp in the course of 2005 and 2006. The officer in charge of the Eiraeiro camp is Lt. Col. Isaac “Wedi Hakim” Araia, the former commander of the 29th division’s 2nd brigade, who replaced Maj. Gen. Gerezghiher “Wuchu” Andemariam.
Fessehaye was initially held at the Asmara No. 1 police station following his arrest. He was moved to an underground prison at Dongolo in April 2002 after taking part in the hunger strike to demand the right to be tried. A former political prisoner held there at the same time told Reporters Without Border: “Dongolo is a prison with cells that measure 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres, and 2.5 metres tall. They are lit by a bulb that is never turned off. The prisoners are chained to the wall by their feet. Their wrists are manacled. The harm done to the prisoners’ health by these conditions is indescribable. Insects buzz around the bulb in the ceiling.” Already weakened by his hunger strike, Fessehaye was interrogated harshly by Col. Gaim Tesfemichael and Col. Simon Ghebregindil, the source said. His fingernails were ripped out.
Born on 19 September 1958, Fessehaye was married and had two sons, now aged five and six. A veteran of the independence war against Ethiopia, he was a leading figure in political and media circles. He led a dance and theatre troupe. He had a career as a poet and playwright. And he helped found Setit, which was Eritrea’s most popular weekly until the September 2001 crackdown on the media.
European favours and Legion of Honour
After being the target of sharp criticism from the international community, Eritrea seems to be respectable again, given its involvement in several regional crises, including the Somali one. France has played a key role in the normalisation of its relations with the European Union. Brigitte Girardin, the acting French minister for cooperation and development, made an official visit to Eritrea on 23 September 2006. It was “the first visit by a minister since independence,” according to the French foreign ministry. There was no public mention of the detainees.
Eritrea’s former ambassador to France, Hanna Simon, received the Order of Knights of the Legion of Honour in a ceremony staged by the French embassy in Asmara last December. The French foreign ministry told Reporters Without Borders it was above all in recognition for “her commitment to the cause of women.” European development commissioner Louis Michel made an official visit to Eritrea on 1 February without publicly referring to the issue of the detainees.
The former colonial power in the Horn of Africa, Italy also maintains special links with the Eritrean government. Prime Minister Romano Prodi received Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki during a private visit to Italy on 4 December. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi invited President Issaias on several occasions to spend a few days of vacation at his villa in Sardinia.