On 24 May 1993, the state of Eritrea was formally recognised as an independent nation. A UN-supervised referendum had confirmed the country's separation from Ethiopia, against which Eritrea had fought a 30-year war of liberation. Twenty years on from the euphoric celebrations and promise of independence, thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are held in arbitrary detention in Eritrea's prisons, without charge or trial, for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression or of thought, conscience or religion or belief, or for attempting to flee the repression in their country.
In Eritrea, 20 years after independence, there is no freedom of expression, no independent media and no civil society. Only four religions are recognised by the state. Only one political party - the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice [PFDJ] - is permitted. National service conscription is mandatory for all adults and is frequently extended indefinitely. Human rights are systematically violated. Any attempt to dissent in any way from this repressive system is met with arbitrary arrest and detention without trial.
Throughout the 20 years of Eritrea's independence, the government of President Isaias Afewerki has systematically used arbitrary arrest and detention without trial to crush all opposition, to silence all dissent, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the restrictions placed on freedom of religion and belief, the system of indefinite conscription into national service and other restrictions on human rights imposed by the government. Thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners have disappeared into secret detention, held incommunicado with no contact with the outside world, and without charge or trial. In hundreds of cases that detention is indefinite. In many hundreds of cases the families of the prisoners are not informed of arrests or of the whereabouts of their relatives; have never heard from them after their arrest and do not know if their relatives are alive or dead. Some relatives of detainees have been arrested and detained themselves for asking questions about their family members. Large numbers of people have been arbitrarily detained without charge for over a decade, and many for nearly 20 years - the entirety of Eritrea's independent history. In a very large proportion of these cases their detention amounts to enforced disappearance - the authorities refuse to acknowledge their detention or conceal their fate or whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.
Those in detention include actual or suspected critics or opponents of the government, politicians, journalists, members of unregistered religious groups as well as those which are registered, people caught trying to evade or desert indefinite national service conscription or caught trying to flee the country - those caught on the borders and those who have sought asylum in other countries but who are forcibly returned after they have not been given access to asylum procedures or after their claims have been rejected in those countries. Family members have been arrested in place of individuals who have fled the country. Many of the architects of Eritrea's independence languish in isolation cells and shipping containers, alongside thousands of other prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, for trying to exercise their rights.