The Eritrean foreign minister’s confirmation that all politicians and journalists arbitrarily arrested in 2001 are alive is welcome news but they must now be immediately and unconditionally released, said Amnesty International.

In a Radio France Internationale (RFI) interview broadcast on 20 June, Foreign Minister Osman Saleh referred to the detainees as political prisoners and said “all of them are alive” and will be tried “when the government decides”. The detainees, who were arrested in September 2001, included 11 politicians and 10 journalists. Until now the Eritrean authorities have refused to disclose their whereabouts or their health status to their families.

“Amnesty International considers all 21 prisoners of conscience and has campaigned for their release since they were arrested 15 years ago. It is a travesty of justice that they have been held incommunicado for so long without charge or trial,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

“They must be immediately and unconditionally released as they should never have been locked up in jail in the first place.”

The 11 politicians – all former members of the Central Council of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) – were arrested after they  published an open letter to the government and President Isaias Afewerki in September 2001 calling for reform and “democratic dialogue”. The journalists were arrested over the following week.

“All prisoners of conscience in Eritrea must be immediately and unconditionally released. Anyone suspected of a criminal offence must be charged with a recognizable crime and tried promptly before a civilian court in accordance with international fair trial standards, or released,” said Sarah Jackson.