(NEW YORK) – Twenty years after gaining independence, Eritrea’s prisons are filled with thousands of political prisoners who are locked up in atrocious conditions without ever being charged with a crime, said Amnesty International Wednesday in a briefing that includes a map offering an unprecedented look at the network of secret prisons.
Amnesty’s interactive map offers the first look at the locations of 34 known prisons, both secret and public detention facilities, where thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are languishing for expressing opinions, dissent or opposition, practicing religion, or attempting to flee repression. Many prisoners are never heard from again after being taken into custody.
“The map shows the infrastructure of total repression in Eritrea,” said Dr. Scott Edwards, Amnesty International USA’s Crisis Response director. “Eritrea is among the most repressive, secretive, and inaccessible countries in the world.”
The extreme opaqueness around detention procedures in the country means the exact number of prisons is unknown.
Human rights in Eritrea are systematically violated. There is no independent media, no opposition political parties, and no civil society. Only four religions are recognized by the government.
“The government has systematically used arbitrary arrest and detention without charge to crush all opposition, to silence all dissent, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the repressive restrictions it places on people’s lives,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Eritrea researcher.
Amnesty International believes that at least 10,000 political prisoners have been imprisoned by the government of President Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled since the country’s independence in 1993. With no known exception, not a single political prisoner has ever been charged with a crime or tried, has had access to a lawyer or been brought before a judge or a judicial officer to assess the legality and necessity of their detention.
In the vast majority of cases, the prisoners’ families are not informed of their whereabouts and often never hear from their detained family member again after the arrest. Torture – for punishment, interrogation, and coercion – is widespread. Practitioners of unregistered religions are subjected to torture in an attempt to force them to recant their faith.
Amnesty International has received many reports of deaths in detention as a result of torture, appalling conditions, or suicide. These include accounts of prisoners dying of treatable diseases such as malaria and illnesses caused by excessive heat.
Numerous detention centers use underground cells and metal shipping containers to house prisoners. Many of these prisons are in the desert and other locations and experience extremes of high and low temperatures that are magnified by underground conditions and metal container walls. All are overcrowded and unclean; food and drinking water are scarce.
One former detainee who was once held in an underground cell in Wi’a military camp told Amnesty International:
“We couldn’t lie down [in the underground cell]. It’s best to be standing because if you lie down, your skin remains stuck to the floor. The floor is terribly hot.”
Another who was kept in a detention center in Barentu said:
“The room was about 2.5 meters by 3 meters and we were 33 people. It is very, very hot. The door is closed, the ceiling is low, about 2 meters. The temperature was about 50 degrees [Celsius]. A boy, about 17 years old, was about to die. We were not permitted to speak, but we banged the door. They [the guards] told us they would kill all of us if we did not stop shouting. We couldn’t do anything to help him.”
Amnesty International is calling on President Afewerki to immediately release all prisoners of conscience charge anyone suspected of a recognizable crime and promptly give them a fair trial or else immediately release them. Family members must be informed of their relatives’ whereabouts, the organization said.
Click on the map to explore the vast network of detention centers in Eritrea
Notes to Editor:
*Eritrea was formally recognized as an independent nation on May 24, 1993.
*Accompanying the briefing are maps and satellite images that show the widespread system of detention in Eritrea. An interactive map and publically available satellite imagery is also available to identify suspected facilities of detention.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists, and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.