A banner in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Petra Jankov Picha)

Dawit Isaac: Jailed 3,127 days in Eritrea without trial

By Mohamed Hassim Keita/CPJ Africa Research Associate on April 16, 2010 2:49 PM ET

Journalist Dawit Isaac has spent 3,127 days in government custody in his native Eritrea, according to the ticker on FreeDawit, a Web site based in Sweden, Isaac’s adopted country, where he is a citizen. He has never been publicly charged with a crime or been given a trial. A thorny issue between Sweden and the Red Sea nation for many years, the imprisonment of Isaac sparked disagreement between diplomats for the two countries again this week.

The dispute was sparked by Swedish media reports quoting European Union parliamentarian Eva-Britt Svensson as saying that Eritrea’s ambassador in Brussels, Girma Asmerom Tesfay, had promised that his government would formally charge Isaac and take him to court. During our conversation, he said suddenly, that Dawit Isaac will have a trial,” Svensson told Expressen newspaper. But Negassi Kassa Tekle, deputy chief of the Eritrean Mission in Brussels, described the statement as being much narrower: “The ambassador said only that all Eritreans have the right to be tried. We have no new information about Dawit Isaac.” Still, Svensson is standing by her recollection. “I have my notes and my recollection that he had not talked in general. He spoke very precisely. It was ‘Dawit Isaac has to have a trial,’” Expressen reported.

Diplomatic recollections aside, friends and family of Isaac received the news with deep skepticism. Isaac’s brother Esayas told CPJ that earlier Eritrean promises of due process were never fulfilled. “We still don’t know why he’s in prison,” he said. “Eight years is enough for us; it’s definitely enough for Dawit.” Leif Öbrink, a close friend of Isaac and the president of a coalition of local and international organizations that delivers a petition to the Eritrean embassy in Stockholm every Tuesday, offered similar sentiments. “From experience, as long as the [Eritrean] president doesn’t say it, it’s not believable,” he told me. Öbrink was one of two people Isaac phoned in November 2005 when authorities briefly released him—only to return him to prison days later.

Speaking to Expressen, Tekle, the Eritrean diplomat, said the ambassador was following standard Eritrean government talking points. “The ambassador replied in accordance with standard procedure. He said he guarantees that no one in Eritrea is convicted without having had a trial. He talked about the matter in context, that Eritrea is a country that respects international law. It is the same information we give to everyone else,” he said.

Tekle’s assertions notwithstanding, neither Isaac nor the 18 other journalists being held in Eritrea have been publicly charged or brought to trial. Many were first detained in 2001, when the government cracked down on political dissent and the independent media. Authorities have consistently refused to say what crimes Isaac or the other journalists allegedly committed, where they are being held, and, in some cases, whether they are even alive.

Ironically, the talking points Tekle referenced reflect legal guarantees contained in Eritrea’s constitution—a document President Isaias Afeworki indefinitely suspended in September 2001 after shutting down private newspapers like Isaac’s Setit, which had published columns demanding its implementation during a divisive national debate on the direction of Africa’s youngest nation. In a June 2009 TV interview, Afeworki declared that Isaac had made a “mistake,” and would be “dealt with” outside the Eritrean court system.

Eritrea is among the small number of states worldwide that have detained journalists for prolonged periods without charge or trial. (Those nations have also included the United States and Iran). Supporters of Isaac and the other journalists say Eritrean authorities, by holding the detainees incommunicado, are effectively engaged in enforced disappearance. According to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enforced disappearance is “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state […] followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” Eritrean officials have repeatedly refused to provide CPJ or anyone else with the whereabouts, legal status, or health of the journalists being held in Eritrea.

“Authorities have not presented a single piece of concrete evidence against those accused,” said Semere Kesete, an Eritrean lawyer who disappeared in government custody for nearly a year after being detained without charge in 2001. Kesete, who escaped after months in solitary confinement, is now producing a Tigrigna-language film in which the detainees are given a fictionalized day in court. “It’s up to the government to produce clear evidence of whatever crimes may have been committed. By putting people in undisclosed places, you cannot bring justice."


The people of eritrea need special treatment and attention from the international community,this is for the reason that we are despised of the freedom and tortured by the evil regime a.At this moment anybody can witness the stiff life we r spending in our homeland each family is in great anxiety of its members either in harish internationally unknown prisons,conscription or the now and then border crossing youths.I don't know any body in asmara who is free minded except the regimes cliques and army commanders with their family.If this was all the fight for independence then i am really ashamed of that struggle and this struggle has became the root cause of the people's suffering.As for me am in mid twenties and i can join any armed struggle with a clear vision of freeing the people from the now isolated tyrany issaias.GOD BLESS INFINITE PEOPLE LOSING THEIR LIFEEEEE.

eritrea is my country and i love it very much. the situation in eritrea is unique and harsh. the main problem is the president wants to be a king like libya president. those who fought many years for independence of eritrea cant accept this things so inorder to ingulf them or to get them, he started war with ethiopea and after the peace agrement they asked him to implement the constitution and he took all the ministers and journalists to prison with out enough food clean water and torture they are dying one by one. no one can see them no one knows where they are no one have right to ask about them waw. where is the world? are we living alone in this earth? please read more about eritrea.

Eritrea has become a place in wich the young escape compulsory military service the old lost hopes and are incarcerated if their dears manage to escape and stay there unless they have 50000 nakfa. it is wrong for the international community to stay on the side expressing disbilief and sorrow but doing no tangible action to stop the slaughter, the dictatorship . Before Eritrea bocomes a failed estate(MANY say its already a failed state) and contributes to the perennal instability of the region the international community should do something like putting diplomatic and economic pressure on the ruling elite and if deemed necessary military force to finally bring some light to Eritrea.
Eritreans do not deserve the regime, and though Afewerki is a war hero his wrongdoing have long surplased is heroic and splendid achievement during the struggle for independence. I hope Eritrea will finally achieve and mantain peace, and i wish the eritrean people to fulfill their dreams where they may be.

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