Amanuel Asrat, a poet and editor of the Zemen newspaper, was one of several journalists arrested in September 2001 following a crackdown on the press in Eritrea. His whereabouts, health, and status remain unknown as the Eritrean government repeatedly has failed to provide credible answers to questions about imprisoned journalists, or to allow visits from family or lawyers.
Amanuel was arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. At the time of his arrest, Amanuel was editor-in-chief of Zemen, according to free speech advocacy organization PEN Eritrea in Exile. He was an art critic and a renowned poet in Eritrea, credited with establishing clubs for writers in the country. His poetry’s subject included the ugly side of conflict.
Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Amanuel or the other journalists arrested in the 2001 crackdown. CPJ in 2007 confirmed that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention. Although reports have alleged that other journalists arrested in 2001 have also died in custody, CPJ has been unable to independently confirm these reports. CPJ continues to list these journalists in the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
Amanuel’s paper was one of several that reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice and advocated for full implementation of the country’s democratic constitution. A dozen top reformist officials, whose pro-democracy statements had been relayed by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.
In a blog published by CPJ in 2009, an Eritrean journalist in exile, Aaron Berhane, reported that he and Amanuel had submitted a letter to Eritrea’s ministry of information on September 21, 2001, demanding clarification on the decision to shut down privately owned newspapers. Aaron reported that this was the last time he saw Amanuel before his arrest on September 23.
Authorities initially detained the journalists at a police station in the capital, Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on March 31, 2002, and smuggled a message out of jail demanding due process, according to CPJ research. The government responded by transferring them to secret locations without bringing them before a court or publicly registering charges. Several people familiar with the situation told CPJ that the journalists were confined at the Eiraeiro prison camp or at a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.
Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests–accusing the journalists of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, of skirting military service, and of violating press regulations. Officials, at times, even denied that the journalists existed. Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile suggested as many as seven journalists have died in custody.
Eritrea’s government has not provided substantive information on Amanuel’s health or location.
When asked in a June 2016 interview with Radio France International about the status of journalists and politicians arrested in 2001, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said "all of them are alive" and “in good hands,” adding that they would face trial "when the government decides.”
In October 2018, Paulos Netabay, director of the state-owned Eritrean News Agency, told CPJ that the arrest of journalists in 2001 was connected to “acts of subversion and treason by some former politicians” and that the cases had been “submitted and decided by the National Assembly.”
In June 2019, a group of over 100 prominent African journalists, writers, and activists wrote an open letter to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki asking to visit the imprisoned journalists and activists, according to a copy of the letter that was published by the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian. In a response published on its website, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information said that only reporters with a “genuine interest in understanding the country” were welcome, and said the imprisoned journalists were arrested for “events of sedition.”
CPJ sent emails to Netabay and Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel in September 2019, asking about the status and health of imprisoned journalists, but did not receive any response.
In October 2019, CPJ called the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inquire about the imprisoned journalists. An official who refused to identify himself answered the call and said it would not be appropriate to discuss the cases over the phone. He directed CPJ to contact the government through the Ministry of Information or via Eritrea’s embassies; CPJ emailed the embassies in Kenya, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States, but did not receive any replies.