Reporters Without Borders has called on the European Union not to hand over aid worth 122 million euros to Eritrea, after a serious deterioration in conditions for political prisoners and as authorities were launching a new wave of arrests of journalists.
“Who could still believe in the EU's commitment to human rights when a sum like this can be given to Eritrea?” the worldwide press freedom organisation asked. “Once again the EU is preparing to support the Eritrean regime when the country has shown no progress in respect for freedoms, quite the contrary”.
“We are extremely concerned about Eritrean prisoners, whose very existence is denied by Asmara, as well as an increase in arrests of journalists,” the organisation said.
“Certainly the country needs humanitarian support and development aid, but the Issaias Afeworki government does not readily allow the EU to ensure a proper follow-up of the use to which these funds are put,” it said. “In this case, money given to its Eritrean 'partner' by the European Development Fund amounts to something like a blank cheque and is seen by the people and diaspora as a sign of support for the regime,” it concluded.
Two waves of prison transfers in December 2008
The government on 13 December transferred 113 political prisoners from jail in Asmara to Embatkala jail in Ghinda (35 kilometres north-west of the capital, on the road to the port city of Massawa). They were moved in the middle of the night in four armoured vehicles guarded by the Eritrean military under the supervision of Colonel Tesfalidet Habteselasie.
Also in December, 27 political prisoners were moved to the Dahlak archipelago in the Red Sea where conditions are said to be appalling. Among them was editor and co-founder of the twice-weekly Meqaleh, Mattewos Habteab, arrested in Asmara on 19 September 2001, and the sports journalist and member of the executive board of the twice-weekly Keste Debena, Temesgen Gebreyesus, who was arrested on 20 September 2001.
Conditions in the Dahlak islands are reputedly even worse than those in the prison camp at Eiraeiro already described by Reporters Without Borders. Prisoners are held in searing heat in subterranean isolation cells. Given how few prisoners return alive from the archipelago, being imprisoned in the Dahlak islands is in Eritrea synonymous with “a one-way ticket to hell”.
Dawit Isaac is in a military hospital
The Swedish-Eritrean journalist and founder of the former weekly Setit, Dawit Isaac, who was arrested in Asmara on 23 September 2001, was among the prisoners transferred to Embatkala in December. But his very poor state of health led to him being returned to the capital on 11 January. Several sources concur that he is currently being treated in the air force hospital where only one doctor is in contact with him. The Eritrean authorities do their utmost to keep secret the state of health of this journalist, despite international campaigns in his support. The European Parliament on 7 January expressed its “deep concern at the continued imprisonment” of Dawit Isaac and called for his immediate release.
Arrests at Radio Bana and other media
The authorities on 22 February 2009, ordered a raid on the premises of Radio Bana, a small station in the heart of the capital that puts out educational programmes under the sponsorship of the education ministry. Its entire staff of around 50 journalists were arrested and taken without explanation to the Dobozito detention centre on the edge of the city. Some of the staff were released but several of them remain in custody. Among them are Bereket Misghina, aka Wedi Misghina, a famous actor and playwright; journalist and essayist Yirgalem Asfha, former art critic for the newspaper Zemen; teacher Basilios Zemo, aka Wedi Zemo, and a young teacher Senait Habtu, working in the radio's production studio. Unconfirmed reports suggested they had been transferred to the military prison in Adi Abeito, north-west of Asmara on the road to Keren.
Bereket Wedi Misghina was tortured in 2002 after a showing of his film, Fistametat.
Elsewhere, Isaac Abraham, a journalist on public Eri TV, Girmay Abraham, a journalist on radio Dimtsi Hafash (The Voice of the Masses), Mulubrhan Habtegebriel, journalist, writer and translator, and Meles Negusse, a young writer and poet, have just been arrested by Eritrean police. It is not known where they are being held.