Dawit Isaak

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

Dawit Isaak, Swedish-Eritrean co-owner of the newspaper Setit, was among about 11 journalists arrested following a government crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea in 2001. Like most of those arrested, Dawit’s whereabouts, health, and legal 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. His family have called on Eritrea to prove that the journalists are still alive.

Dawit was arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afwerki. 

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. 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 northeastern Eiraeiro prison camp or Adi Abeito military prison near Asmara.

In April 2002, Dawit was reportedly hospitalized because of torture. According to his brother, Esayas Isaak, he was released on November 19, 2005, for medical reasons but was rearrested two days later. 

It is believed that Dawit was being held in solitary confinement in the northeastern Eiraeiro prison camp, according to Dawit’s legal representatives, free speech organization PEN Eritrea, a purported former Eritrean prison guard, and two U.N. special rapporteurs who said in a 2021 joint statement that they had received information from a “credible source” that Dawit was alive in Eiraeiro prison as of September 2020. 

Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests–accusing journalists of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, skirting military service, and violating press regulations. 

Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile suggested that seven of the journalists arrested in 2001 have died in custody. 

When asked about Dawit’s crime in a 2009 interview with Swedish journalist Donald Boström, Afwerki said, "I don’t know," before asserting that the journalist had made "a big mistake," without offering details. The president added, "We will not have any trial, and we will not free him." Although Dawit has dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, Isaias said that since Dawit was Eritrean first, "the Swedish government has nothing to do with this."

In 2010, Yemane Gebreab, a senior presidential adviser, told the Swedish daily Aftonbladet that Dawit was being held for "very serious crimes regarding Eritrea’s national security and survival as an independent state."

In a 2016 interview with Radio France International about the journalists arrested in 2001, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said "all of them are alive" and "in good hands." Asked if they would face trial, Osman said they would "when the government decides."

In 2016, a decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights “strongly urged” Eritrea to release or provide a “speedy and fair trial” to Dawit and other journalists detained since 2001, grant them access to their families and lawyers, and pay compensation for their detention.

In 2018, Paulos Netabay, director of the state-owned Eritrean News Agency, told CPJ that the journalists’ arrest 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 a 2020 interview with Sweden’s state-owned Sverige Radio, Dawit’s daughter, Betlehem Isaak, said she believed her father was alive but she could not reveal how she knew this, saying ongoing “silent diplomacy” efforts constrained her. 

In 2021, CPJ and 15 other human rights organizations, journalists, and human rights experts called on Canada to impose sanctions on senior Eritrean officials for human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of journalists.  

In a March 2023 opinion responding to a 2022 complaint by CPJ and nine other human rights organizations and lawyers, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Dawit’s 22-year pre-trial detention lacked legal basis and was “unacceptably long and constitutes an egregious violation” of his rights. The U.N. said that Eritrea failed to respond to allegations that Dawit was ill-treated and tortured and urged the government to release Dawit immediately, investigate the circumstances of his detention, and pay compensation.

In a May 2023 report, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, said the whereabouts and wellbeing of disappeared Eritreans remained unknown, including 16 journalists who had been held for more than 20 years, making them the longest detained journalists in the world. 

In a September 2023 video campaign by the Canada-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, relatives of Dawit and three other journalists called for information about the detained journalists.

As of late 2023, CPJ’s emails to Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane Ghebremeskel, and via the ministry website did not receive any replies. A person who answered a phone call to the ministry of foreign affairs provided an email address for queries but CPJ’s email did not receive any response. A person who answered two calls at the ministry of justice could not be heard clearly.