Geneva, 25 June 2013.
PEN International has made a submission on the situation of freedom of expression in Eritrea to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The human rights record of Eritrea will come under scrutiny by the UPR mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council for the second time in January 2014.
PEN has serious concerns about the lack of freedom of opinion and expression and the continuing practice of incommunicado detention without trial of writers, journalists and politicians in Eritrea. Very little progress has been made since the 2009 UPR.
Access the full report here, which includes further details of the detained journalists and politicians, or read our summary below.
Implementation of recommendations from 2009 UPR
Eritrea accepted a number of recommendations relevant to the right to freedom of expression and to the situation of detained writers and journalists as a result of the 2009 UPR. However, Eritrea has to date failed to implement any of these recommendations. It has not signed or ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) or the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED). In terms of cooperation with the UN, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea has received no response to her repeated requests for an invitation to visit the country in order to assess the human rights situation in accordance with her mandate. Eritrea currently has five outstanding requests for visits by thematic Special Procedures mandate holders, including from the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Eritrea is systematically failing to guarantee its citizens’ right to life and security.
Update on situation for freedom of expression since 2009
Little has changed in Eritrea since the last UPR in 2009. There is no freedom of opinion or expression, no independent media since the government crackdown in September 2001, no political parties apart from the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), no national elections and no civil society. Although ratified by the National Assembly in 1997, Eritrea’s Constitution, which includes a Bill of Rights, has still not been implemented. The government of President Isaias Afewerki rules the country by decree, and dissent of any form is not tolerated.
Access to alternative sources of information is extremely limited due to low levels of internet and telephone penetration. Around 6.2 per cent of the population in Eritrea have access to the internet, slightly below the African average of 7 per cent. Most users access the internet via cyber cafés in the capital Asmara and other main towns and are closely monitored, with some arrests reported in 2011. Private access to the internet is state-controlled and expensive. Although there is no widespread filtering, the government has reportedly blocked several diaspora websites critical of the regime. Only around 5 per cent of Eritreans have access to a fixed or mobile telephone, with ownership of mobile phones also controlled by the state. Government plans to introduce mobile internet capability in 2011 were reportedly abandoned due to fears stemming from Arab Spring uprisings. Both internet and telephone services are reportedly unavailable in rural areas.
Thousands of Eritreans have been detained for their actual or perceived criticism or opposition of the government and its policies or other opinions or beliefs – as many as 10,000, according to recent estimates. Available information suggests that none of these detainees has ever been tried or charged, been given access to a lawyer or brought before a judge. The Eritrean judiciary is not independent and there is no way to appeal against arbitrary detention. In many cases, the detention amounts to enforced disappearance since the authorities refuse to confirm the arrest, whereabouts or fate of the missing individual.
Among the detained are at least 28 journalists – more than any other African country and the highest number of detained journalists per capita of any country worldwide. According to PEN’s information, 18 print journalists and writers have been arrested since 2000. All remain detained incommunicado, most in unknown locations, along with 11 political leaders arrested for their views in September 2001.
Arrests of journalists and writers
PEN has learned of the arrest of nine of these 18 detained print journalists and writers since its report to the UPR in April 2009. Four were arrested in 2009, one in 2008, three in 2001 and one in 2000.
There has been little known change in the circumstances of the 11 political leaders and 10 journalists arrested in the September 2001 crackdown – the G-15 group – on which PEN reported in 2009. One of these journalists is Dawit Isaac, pictured above, a playwright and writer who was co-owner of the newspaper Setit. Of the journalists, he is the only one to have been allowed any contact with his family since 2001, but only once during a medical check-up in 2005.
Although their whereabouts have never been officially confirmed, the politicians and at least some of the journalists are reportedly detained in Eiraeiro, a high security prison which was purpose built to hold them, in a remote location north of Asmara-Massawa road. Prisoners are held in 62 cells, most three metres squared, and are reportedly chained and held in solitary confinement.
According to Amnesty International, in October 2011 it was rumoured that Dawit Isaac may have died as he was reportedly no longer in the prison where he had been held.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in detention
Eritrean detainees are systematically tortured and subjected to other ill-treatment, for purposes of punishment, interrogation and coercion. Prison conditions fall far short of international standards and amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Prisoners are often held in underground cells or shipping containers, often in desert locations and are therefore subject to extremes of heat and cold. Food, water and sanitation are scarce.
ICRC does not have access to detention facilities in Eritrea and there are no civil society organisations to monitor or document conditions. Family members are afraid to ask about the whereabouts of their relatives since some have been arrested themselves for doing so.
Reported deaths in custody of journalists and G-15 politicians
As many as nine journalists and nine politicians may have died in custody due to torture and other ill treatment, harsh conditions and lack of medical treatment, according to unofficial reports. The Eritrean government refuses to confirm or deny any of these or other reported deaths in custody. In meetings with government representatives in early 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea asked them to confirm whether or not the 10 journalists and 11 politicians arrested in September 2001 were still alive, their whereabouts, state of health and access to medical treatment, and why they had not yet been brought before an independent court to be charged with a crime recognisable under international law. She has yet to receive any response to these questions.
PEN calls on the Eritrean government to implement the recommendations from the 2009 UPR, in particular to:
• Respond positively to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea’s requests for information and to visit the country, and issue a standing invitation to all other UN Special Procedures mandate holders, including the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Special Rapporteur on torture;
• Release all prisoners detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression or as a result of their peaceful political views, including journalists, writers and the G-15 politicians;
• Make public information on the whereabouts, health and legal status of all detained journalists, writers and G-15 political leaders;
• Provide a verifiable response to allegations that up to nine journalists and writers and nine of the G-15 politicians have died in detention; and if the reports of their deaths are correct, to ensure a prompt, full and impartial investigation is carried out and those responsible are brought to justice;
• Ensure that international standards of law in the treatment of prisoners are respected, including the right to legal representation, to be charged with a recognisable criminal offence, to a fair trial, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, contact with families, and access to medical treatment;
• Provide ICRC or other independent monitors with access to all detention facilities in the country;
• Implement the 1997 Constitution and the rights it enshrines, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press and access to information;
• Allow the reestablishment of an independent media;
• Improve access to internet and telephone services, particularly in rural areas, and cease surveillance and harassment of internet users.
For further information on PEN International’s work on Eritrea, please contact Tamsin Mitchell, Researcher for Africa and the Americas, at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on PEN's policy and advocacy work at the United Nations please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at email@example.com.