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.
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.