Eritrea: Sixteen years since the crackdown on dissent

Eritrea 16 years18 September 2017 - Today PEN International marks the sixteen-year anniversary of the crackdown on dissent in Eritrea, in which twelve journalists were arrested for their free expression work.

The writers whose cases are listed below will be featured as Empty Chairs during the Writers in Prison Committee meeting at PEN International’s 83rd annual Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, which brings together over 200 PEN members from across the globe. Each year, PEN International selects individual imprisoned writers whose cases are emblematic of the dangers faced by their colleagues around the world. These writers are represented by an ‘empty chair’ which acts as a reminder of the writers’ absence and separation from their colleagues.

Since the government crackdown on dissent on 18 September 2001 and the following days, when  government officials,  journalists, and numerous other dissidents were arrested, there has been no independent media, no registered political parties apart from the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and no national elections in Eritrea.

Sixteen years later the whereabouts of the detained journalists remains unknown and freedom of expression continues to be severely repressed.

PEN International demands that the fate of all detained journalists be immediately clarified by the Eritrean authorities, by providing proof of life or confirming the circumstances of the reported deaths, and that those still alive should be released immediately and unconditionally.

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Write a letter to the authorities:

  • Protesting the detention of Idris Said Aba Arre, Medhanie Haile, Seyoum Tsehaye, Amanuel Asrat, and Dawit Isaak on politically motivated grounds and without known charges or trial since 2001;
  • Demanding that the fate of all detained journalists be immediately clarified, by providing proof of life or confirming the circumstances of the reported deaths, and that those still alive be released immediately and unconditionally

Send appeals to:

His Excellency, Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President,
P.O.Box 257,
Asmara, Eritrea
Fax:  + 2911 125123 
Minister of Information
Hon. Yemane Gebremeskel
P.O. Box 242
Asmara, Eritrea
+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.

The Five Empty Chairs:

Idris Said Aba Arre, arrested in October 2001, is a writer, a disabled veteran of the Eritrean War of Independence, and a vocal critic of Eritrea’s mother-tongue education policy. He was arrested after denouncing the arrests of the G-15, a group of politicians detained for publishing an open letter calling for democratic change in Eritrea. Months before his arrest he had also published his seminal work on mother-tongue education, in which he criticised the government’s post-independence language policy. He has been arbitrarily detained, incommunicado, in a secret location for nearly 16 years.

For more on Idris Said Aba Arre see here and here

Former sports columnist, and a lawyer by profession, Medhanie Haile was working at the Ministry of Justice at the time of his arrest during the crackdown on the independent press in September 2001. Haile remains best known for his critical articles calling for the rule of law to be firmly established in the country post-independence. Haile often wrote editorials that addressed law and order. In one piece, he underlined the importance of a free press in building a vibrant and accountable society. Medhanie is reported to have died in detention, according to a former prison guard. His death – which has not been officially confirmed- was attributed to harsh conditions and a lack of medical attention.

For more on Medhanie Haile click here

A former freedom fighter, the first director of the state-owned national TV channel, Eri-TV and a freelance photographer and journalist, Seyoum Tsehaye was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press. He was well known for his documentary of the Eritrean struggle for independence. Tsehaye was arrested in his home after repeatedly publishing critical articles in the independent newspaper, Setit. He was 49 at the time of his arrest. He has been detained incommunicado since 2001.

For more on Seyoum Tsehaye click here

Amanuel Asrat (b. 1971) is an award-winning Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in- chief of the leading newspaper (Zemen, meaning The Times). Amanuel Asrat is credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s. Asrat was arrested at his home on the morning of 23 September 2001 amid the crackdown on state and private media. Asrat is believed to be among the few surviving journalists that were detained during the crackdown. He has been held incommunicado since his arrest.

For more on Amanuel Asrat see here and here

Dawit Isaak is an Eritrean-Swedish journalist, playwright, poet, co- owner of the weekly newspaper Setit and one of the co-founders of Shewit Children’s Theatre. In addition to his later contributions as a journalist in Setit, Isaak is also widely remembered for the short story “እተን ሰላሳ ሽሕ” (The thirtythousand) that was serialized in the national radio in the early days of independence. Isaak was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press and was taken into custody with other independent journalists; he was briefly released for a few days in 2005, but taken back to an undisclosed location shortly afterwards and he has not been heard from since. He remains detained incommunicado.

For more on Dawit Isaak click here

Further information:

Eritrea: a muzzled state 

Remembering the day the Eritrean press died