Dawit Isaac, co-owner of the newspaper Setit, was one of several prominent journalists 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 Isaac, 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 that he 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 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 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 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 Gebremeskel 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 members of his family, including his brother Esayas, live. He has won numerous awards and prizes since his arrest, including the Golden Pen of Freedom Award of the World Association of Newspapers. Dawit 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 July 2017, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution demanding the release of Dawit and all other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea.
Media organizations including the International Press Institute have demanded that the government prove its claims that Dawit is alive by releasing him. A February 2016 decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that CPJ read “strongly urged” Eritrea to release or provide a “speedy and fair trial” to Dawit and the other journalists that have been 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.
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 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.” CPJ’s attempts to contact the Eritrean ministry of justice and ministry of foreign affairs by phone were unsuccessful.