Dawit Isaak, co-owner of the newspaper Setit, was among several journalists arrested following a government crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea in 2001. Dawit, who has dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship, has not been seen or heard from since 2005, when he was briefly released for a hospital visit. 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.
Dawit was imprisoned in the September 2001 government crackdown on the independent press. In April 2002, Dawit was reportedly hospitalized because of torture. According to his brother, Esayas Isaak, he was again released on November 19, 2005, for medical reasons but was detained after two days.
A petition filed on behalf of Dawit with the African Commission for Human and People’s rights claims that Dawit was kept in solitary confinement in 2010 “with no windows” and was in “very poor mental health,” according to documents reviewed by CPJ.
Eritrean authorities have given vague and conflicting statements about Dawit’s status over the years. When asked about Dawit’s crime in a May 2009 interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki said, "I don’t know," before asserting that the journalist had made "a big mistake," without offering details. The president dismissed the issue of Dawit being tried, stating, "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 involvement of Sweden is irrelevant. The Swedish government has nothing to do with this."
In August 2010, Yemane Gebreab, a senior presidential adviser, said in an interview with the Swedish daily Aftonbladet that Dawit was being held for "very serious crimes regarding Eritrea’s national security and survival as an independent state."
Dawit’s location is uncertain, but it was believed that he was held at Eiraeiro Prison, about 10 miles north of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, according to submissions made by at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and research by PEN Eritrea in Exile, a free speech organization.
In a January 2013 interview with a Swedish newspaper, former information minister and government spokesman Ali Abdu pleaded ignorance of Dawit’s fate.
On June 20, 2016, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said in an interview with RFI that Dawit and the other journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were alive and "in good hands." The minister offered no further details other than saying that the government would bring Dawit to trial "any time when the government decides." Asked why the decision was up to the government rather than an independent judiciary, he said, "We do have an independent justice, but this is political prisoners, and the government is dealing with them."
In interviews published in November 2017 by the Swedish publication Expressen, Eritrean Justice Minister Fozia Hashim said that the arrest of Dawit was a political rather than legal matter. The country’s information minister, Yemane G. Meskel, told the publication that Sweden’s insistence on Dawit’s case was “untenable” under international law. He did not answer a question on proof of life for Dawit, instead criticizing the vigor with which Sweden had pursued the case.
Dawit has drawn considerable international attention, particularly in Sweden, where his family, including his brother Esayas, live. Dawit has won numerous awards and prizes since his arrest, including the Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers. He was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize in May 2017.
In September 2011, on the 10th anniversary of Dawit’s imprisonment, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing “fears for the life” of Dawit, calling for his release and urging the European Council to consider targeted sanctions against relevant top Eritrean officials. In September 2014, the European Union issued a statement calling for Dawit’s immediate release and citing Eritrea’s violation of international and domestic obligations regarding human rights. In October 2020, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution, demanding proof of life and the immediate release of Dawit and others detained in Eritrea.
A February 2016 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 the other journalists detained since 2001. The commission also asked the government to lift the ban on the independent press, grant detained journalists access to their families and lawyers, and pay the detainees compensation.
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 a July 2020 interview with the Swedish state-owned Sverige Radio, Dawit’s daughter, Betlehem Isaak, said that she believed her father was alive but that she could not reveal how she knew of his status, saying ongoing “silent diplomacy” efforts constrained her. Betlehem did not respond to a CPJ email sent in September 2020.
Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an email to CPJ in September 2020 said that the country was still “strongly engaged” in Dawit’s case and “would never give up [its] efforts to secure [his] freedom and reunite him with his family.” The ministry said it was working on the premise that Dawit was still alive but would not provide details of its work, saying it did “not believe [this] would benefit his case.”
In a motion filed with Sweden’s parliament in October 2020, a group of legislators called on the country’s government to increase pressure on the Eritrean government to have Dawit released and called for a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of the government’s “silent diplomacy” efforts. Also, in October 2020, Reporters Without Borders filed a complaint calling on Swedish prosecutors to investigate Eritrean authorities for crimes against humanity in connection to the ongoing detention of Dawit, according to a statement by the organization.
In January 2021, the Swedish public prosecutor’s office released a statement saying that, while it recognized that there was reason to believe that Dawit was the victim of a crime against humanity in the form of the enforced disappearance, it declined to open an investigation, arguing that without the cooperation of Eritrean authorities the suspected crimes could not be investigated or brought to court. In a September 2021 statement, Reporters Without Borders said it had appealed that decision.
In a joint statement in August 2021, Mary Lawlor, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation for human rights defenders, and Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, the special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, said that they had received information from a “credible source” that Dawit was alive in prison as of September 2020. CPJ was unable to verify that claim independently.
In October 2021, CPJ and 15 other human rights organizations, journalists, and human rights experts called on the Canadian government to impose targeted sanctions on senior Eritrean officials for human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of journalists.
In July 2022, CPJ and a coalition of rights organizations and lawyers, led by the Canada-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, filed a complaint on behalf of detained Eritrean journalists with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
CPJ’s calls to Eritrea’s Ministry of Justice either did not connect or rung without an answer in November 2022. A person who answered when CPJ called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 2022 could not be heard clearly.
Emails sent to Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane Ghebremeskel, and Eritrea’s embassies in Kenya, the United States, Switzerland, and Sweden were unanswered or returned error messages in October and November 2022.