Amnesty International believes that the vast majority of the thousands of political prisoners in Eritrea are prisoners of conscience who should be immediately and unconditionally released. They are detained solely for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association, opinion, thought, conscience, religion or belief, freedom of movement, or their identity as family members of people who have fled, who have not committed any internationally recognisable offence or used or advocated violence. Further, Amnesty International believes that people should not be punished for fleeing a situation to avoid being subjected to human rights violations, as is the case with those evading or deserting indefinite national service conscription, a system which provides a context for forced labour and a number of other human rights violations.
With no known exceptions, none of these political prisoners or prisoners of conscience has ever been charged or tried, given access to a lawyer or been brought before a judge or a judicial officer to assess the legality and necessity of the detention. There is no independent judiciary in Eritrea, and there are no avenues for individuals or their families to legally challenge this system of arbitrary detention. These rights are also laid out in Eritrea's Constitution, which was ratified by the National Assembly in 1997, but has never been implemented.
According to the testimonies of former detainees received by Amnesty International, torture and other ill-treatment are commonplace, used for the purposes of punishment, for example of government critics and dissenters, and draft evaders; for interrogation, for example, people who attempted to flee the country are tortured to extract information on who assisted them; and for coercion - adherents of religions not recognised by the state have reported that they were tortured to force them to recant their religion. The secrecy with which prisoners are detained makes them particularly vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment or unlawful killing. There have been many - unofficial and unconfirmed - reports of deaths in detention as a result of torture, detention conditions and denial of medical care. Detention conditions fall far short of international standards and in themselves amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Detainees are frequently held in underground cells or in metal shipping containers, often in desert locations and therefore subject to extremes of heat and cold. Food, water and sanitation are scarce.
This report highlights 20 years of widespread arbitrary arrest and detention without trial used against anyone in Eritrea who demonstrates dissent in any form. It is by no means comprehensive - arbitrary arrest and detention without trial have occurred on a vast scale for two decades - but it aims to provide an overview of major patterns of arbitrary arrests and detention without trial, including key groups who are subject to these violations, and of prisons and conditions in detention.
Amnesty International urges President Isaias Afewerki to release all prisoners of conscience detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, opinion, association, or thought, conscience or religion or belief, or their identity as family members of those who have fled the country; to release all other prisoners if they are not to be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offence and given a fair trial within a reasonable time; to immediately confirm the whereabouts and health status of all prisoners; to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment; and to provide all detainees with immediate access to medical care.