To some Eritreans, freedom means prison and torture

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Independence is like being in a very bright, shiny and happy place," Asefash Berhe said as she walks down Liberation Avenue with three of her seven children. "I can't express how happy I am." Officially independent for just 11 years, Eritrea is Africa's youngest country and, for Mrs Berhe's generation, memories of the 30-year liberation war against Ethiopia are still fresh.

But a report from Amnesty International claims: "Torture, arbitrary detention, disappearances and ill-treatment of political prisoners have become entrenched," adding that in the past year there had been "an upsurge of religious persecution". The government officially sanctions only four religions.

Self-government has bought mixed fortunes for the Red Sea state. Early optimism and prosperity were followed five years later by another war with Ethiopia, recurrent drought, and a clamp on political freedom.

In preparation for independence day, Liberation Avenue, the palm-lined boulevard that forms the backbone of the capital, has been pedestrianised and decorated with thousands of lights and flags. Celebrating Asmara-style means strolling up and down the main road, chatting with friends in a coffee house, or dancing outside to the beat of a traditional band.

"A lot has been done since independence in terms of the rebuilding of the nation." Yemane Kidane, a civil servant says over a macchiato. "I'm thinking of buildings, roads and distribution of electricity to rural areas. A lot of things have been accomplished and I'm proud of them."

The official birth of Eritrea on 24 May, 1993 followed a vote by 99.81 percent of the 3.3 million population for independence from Ethiopia in a referendum, and the early years went well.

The economy grew steadily and the Marxist liberation fighters turned into politicians who appeared to a have a genuine commitment to forming a constitution and introducing democracy. Private newspapers flourished and with corruption almost non-existent President Issayas Afewerki was lauded as one of a new generation of African leaders alongside Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi.

In 1998, a two-year border conflict, again with Ethiopia, shattered the heady optimism. A dispute over the dusty village of Badme left 70,000 dead and transformed Eritrea's political landscape. Plans for a constitution were frozen and democracy postponed.

Eleven senior politicians who signed a critical letter to the President were detained in September 2001 with 10 senior journalists who ran the now-banned private press. The President says these detainees are "traitors","spies" and agents of Ethiopia. None of them have faced trial.

With the tightening of political control came restrictions on personal freedom. The 18-month national service has for many become open-ended, with exit visas needed for a young Eritrean to leave the country.

Amnesty International's latest report, called Eritrea:You have no right to ask, says human rights violations are now "on a massive scale", with the use of torture systematic. Over 47 pages, it documents and illustrates arbitrary detentions and religious persecution and provides detailed descriptions of torture it says is being committed.

Amnesty interviewed former detainees who said the most common form of torture, mainly used by the army on conscripts, is "the helicopter". The victim has hands and feet tied behind their back and is stripped and left exposed to the elements for days. One detainee is said to have endured this for 55 days.

Prison conditions for political prisoners are said to be "extremely harsh", with inmates often in shipping containers. Cells are said to be overcrowded damp and dirty, and many prisoners are said to have died in custody as a result of torture or lack of medical treatment. Amnesty says no information is provided to the families of political prisoners about their health or whereabouts.

With no independent press, information in Eritrea is tightly controlled. In July, 2003, Aklilu Solomon, the correspondent of Voice of America radio was arrested days after one of his radio report's differed from the official government view. Eritrea says he was detained because he'd failed to fulfil his national service obligations.

Minority Christian groups are denied registration and permission to practise freely. Amnesty says these minority church groups have tried to worship in private and been arrested, beaten and tortured in military detention centres.

Jehovah's Witnesses are denied citizenship in Eritrea because they refused to vote in the referendum and refuse to do military service. Amnesty says three Jehovah's witnesses have been detained incommunicado for the past 10 years.

The Eritrean government are used to damning human rights reports and dismisses them as unsubstantiated rumour. "Great progress has been made in establishing a just and democratic order in Eritrea," Yemane Gebreab, head of political affairs at the ruling party the People's Front for Democracy and Justice said. "I think Eritrea has done very well."