Joint letter to the president of Eritrea

17 September 2004

His Excellency Issayas Afewerki
President of Eritrea
Office of the President
PO Box 257

via fax: + 2911-126-422

Your Excellency:

We are writing to express alarm over the deteriorating human rights situation and growing repression of freedom of expression in Eritrea. In particular, we are concerned about the ban that your government has imposed on all independent non-governmental press since September 2001, when an unknown number of critics of your government were detained. Those detained include more than a dozen journalists who have been incarcerated for over three years without being formally charged.

Jailing people for the peaceful expression of their opinion is a serious violation of human rights. As a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples ‘ Rights and to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Eritrea is obligated to uphold the rights and freedoms protected by these agreements, including the right to freedom of expression. Eritrea is currently the only African nation, and one of a few countries in the world, without any privately owned media outlets. The suppression of private news sources restricts freedom of expression and information, stifling Eritrea’s national dialogue and forcing political discourse underground. Ultimately this repression will foster the very instability that your government aims to avoid.

The detained journalists, most of whom were jailed following the government’s ban on independent media in September 2001, are being held in undisclosed locations without charges, despite the fact that Eritrean law forbids the holding of a prisoner without charges for more than 30 days. Prolonged detention without trial is also a violation of the aforementioned international treaties. None of those detained have been publicly taken before a judge or provided with legal counsel, and officials have refused to supply any information regarding the health, whereabouts or legal status of the detainees.

Fessahaye Yohannes, a married father of three, is one of the journalists who have been held without charge or trial. Prior to his detention he was the editor and co-founder of the weekly newspaper Setit, which, like other independent newspapers and magazines, provided a forum for viewpoints that might differ from those of the government. Other journalists who have been detained without charge include Said Abdulkadir, Yosuf Mohamed Ali, Amanuel Asrat, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Mattewos Habteab, Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Dawit Isaac, Seyoum Tsehaye, Saadia Ahmed, Saleh Al-Jezaeri, Aklilu Solomon, Hamid Mohamed Said, and Ghebrehiwet Keleta. Two other journalists, Zemenfes Haile and Selamyinghes Beyene, were reportedly arrested on account of their professional work for private media and sent into the national service as a punitive measure that can be imposed indefinitely.

We are dismayed that Eritreans are not free to exercise the basic rights and freedoms to which they are entitled and which your government is expected to uphold. We respectfully urge you to lift the ban on Eritrea’s independent press and to immediately release all those who have been jailed simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

We thank you for your attention, and we look forward to your response.