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Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2018 - Take Action for Dawik Isaak

Monday 12 November 2018 - 8:35pm

Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years


Dawit Isaak, an award-winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years. His case is emblematic of the dire situation facing independent journalists in the country, many of whom have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, threats, harassment and enforced disappearances over the years. Isaak was one of several journalists arrested during the government’s September 2001 crackdown on independent voices in the press and politics. Very little is known about his current circumstances. Although Eritrea’s Foreign Minister claimed in a 2016 interview  that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were still alive - including Isaak - no proof has yet been provided. Similarly, there is little information available concerning the charges against these prisoners; the Foreign Minister has said that those arrested would be tried “when the government decides.” Isaak was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017.

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Send appeal letters to the Eritrean authorities:

  • Protesting the detention of Dawit Isaak on politically motivated grounds and without known charges or trial since 2001;
  • Urging the Eritrean authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of Dawit Isaak and other detained journalists and release them immediately and unconditionally;
  • Expressing concern for Isaak’s health as detainees are believed to have suffered ill treatment, torture and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of some of the journalists.
  • Acknowledging the positive improvements in relations with Ethiopia and calling upon the Eritrean authorities to utilise this opportunity to take urgent and meaningful steps to improve the situation for freedom of expression and human rights for its citizens, in line with its international obligations

Send appeals to:

His Excellency,
Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President
P.O.Box 257
Fax:  + 2911 125123

Minister of Justice
Hon. Minister of Justice Fawzia Hashim
P.O.Box 241
Fax: + 291 1 126422

Minister of Information
Hon. Yemane Gebremeskel
P.O. Box 242
Fax: +291 124 847
Twitter: @hawelti

Please send a copy of appeals to the diplomatic representative for Eritrea in your country if possible. Details of some Eritrean embassies can be found here.


Crackdown on dissent

Eritrea is one of the worst jailers of writers and dissident voices, earning the dubious honour of the most censored country in the world in 2015.  PEN International is aware of at least 17 journalists currently held incommunicado or in circumstances amounting to enforced disappearance, some of whom are believed to have died in the appalling conditions of Eritrean prisons. Their deaths – which have not been officially confirmed – have been attributed to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention.

In September 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. In May 2001, 15 dissident members (known as the G-15) of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the current ruling party in Eritrea) published an open letter in which they denounced the President’s abuse of power and presented his actions as “illegal and unconstitutional”. Following the publication of the letter, as well as interviews and articles related to it, all dissidents were detained, including 11 members of the G15, who were arrested in Asmara on 18 and 19 September 2001 and accused of crimes against national security and sovereignty.  Private newspapers were also banned, with at least 10 journalists (including Isaak) arrested in September 2001 and another two in October 2001. It is still unknown whether charges have been brought against them or even if any trial has taken place, and there is little official information of their whereabouts and well-being.

The other journalists detained in September 2001 are: Said AbdelkadirYousif Mohammed AliAmanuel AsratTemesegen GhebereyesusMatheos HabteabDawit HabtemichaelMedhanie HaileFessaha “Joshua” YohannesSeyoum Tsehaye.

The authorities have reportedly claimed that the imprisoned journalists have been sent to carry out their national service and that the detentions were necessary for the preservation of national unity or due to the newspaper’s lack of compliance with media licenses. In various media interviews over the years, President Isaias Afewerki has referred to the journalists as “spies” in the pay of the CIA. In June 2016, the Foreign Minister of Eritrea referred to the men arrested in 2001 as “political prisoners.” Political commentators have suggested that the media crackdown was an attempt to stamp out criticism of the Eritrean government’s treatment of students and political dissenters, and of its conflict with Ethiopia.

Dawit Isaak: Journalist, playwright, poet

Isaak (b.1964) is a Swedish-Eritrean journalist, playwright, poet, co-owner of ሰቲት (Setit), and one of the co-founders of Shewit Children’s Theatre. He has been detained incommunicado since September 2001. Author of the book (in verses) ባና፤ ታሪኽ ፍቕሪ--ሙሴን ማናን (1988) (Bana: The Affair of Mussie and Mana), Isaak spent a number of years in Sweden during the Eritrean war of independence (1961-1991) and the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He returned to his home country after independence and he was actively engaged in various cultural and literary activities and the media. In addition to his later contributions as a journalist in Setit, Isaak is also widely remembered for the short story “እተን ሰላሳ ሽሕ” (The Thirty Thousand) which was serialized on the national radio in the early days of independence. Isaak was briefly released for a few days in 2005, but was taken back to an undisclosed location shortly afterwards and he has not been heard from since.

Isaak reportedly suffers from a diabetic condition that requires medical supervision. In April 2002, it was reported that Isaak had been hospitalised suffering from injuries sustained during torture. In January 2009, he was reportedly transferred from prison to an Air Force hospital in Asmara as a result of serious illness but was later returned to prison.

In addition to the UNESCO award that he received for his “courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression,” Isaak has also been awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom award, the Kurt-Tucholsky-Prize, and the Anna Politkovskaya award, among others. Isaak is an Honorary Member of PEN American Center, PEN Canada, Finnish PEN, Swedish PEN and PEN Eritrea in Exile and many PEN Centres have campaigned on his behalf.

For a detailed account of the dire state of freedom of expression and other human rights in Eritrea, please see PEN International’s 2018 joint submission on Eritrea to the Universal Periodic Review.

For further details, please contact Cathal Sheerin at PEN International’s London Office: PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London SE1 2AN Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: