The appeal has been issued by Eritrean journalist Aaron Behrane, who is visiting Sweden for the first time at the initiative of RSF’s Swedish section. Behrane was the co-founder of Setit, the newspaper that Isaak was working for at the time of his arrest.
Setit had just published a call by local politicians for a transition to democracy when Isaak was arrested along with ten other journalists in Eritrea in 2001. According to the information obtained by RSF, at least seven of those journalists have died in detention as a result of the appalling conditions in which they were held. Despite RSF’s repeated appeals, the Eritrean authorities have not provided any evidence that Isaak is still alive.
In a letter to Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström, Behrane condemns the lack of transparency surrounding the efforts undertaken by the Swedish authorities to obtain his colleague’s release and describes their attitude as one of “indifference” or even “neglect.” The government refers to its efforts in very general terms and confines them to the use of a “silent diplomacy.”
“The lack of results from the diplomatic dealings undertaken by Sweden in an attempt to obtain the release of one of its citizens clearly shows that ‘silent diplomacy’ has failed and it is therefore legitimate to question this strategy,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “As this Swedish journalist has languished in the Eritrean regime’s jails, in appalling conditions and without access to his family or to a lawyer, for nearly two decades, Sweden must now, as a matter of urgency, show that it deserves its reputation as a staunch defender of human rights by committing itself to more determined and concrete action to obtain his release.”
In 2009 and 2015, when allocations of 100 million euros and 200 million euros in aid were made available to Eritrea under the European Development Fund, Sweden failed to use the opportunity to make this assistance conditional on Isaak’s release.
After consulting with the government, the Swedish prosecutor general refrained twice – in 2015 and 2015 – from opening an investigation into Eritrea’s “crimes against humanity” in order not to undermine the government’s diplomacy.
Civil society initiatives, including a 2016 appeal by RSF’s Swedish section for a parliamentary evaluation of the government’s actions, have yet to receive a favourable response, despite the motion that a number of parliamentarians presented in the spring of 2018.
Eritrea is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.