Idris Said (Abba Arre)

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Idris Said, also known as Abba Arre, was a civil servant and newspaper columnist. He wrote critically about Eritrea’s language policy and the arrests of writers and journalists in September 2001, following a government crackdown on the independent press. Like most of those arrested, Idris’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.

At the time of his arrest in October 2001, Idris worked at Eritrea’s Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare and contributed to the privately owned weekly Tsigenay and the state-owned Arabic newspaper Eritrea Al-Haditha, CPJ was told by several journalists including in 2018 Abraham Zere, the then-executive director of the free speech organization PEN Eritrea. 

Idris was arrested in the wake of the government’s sudden ban on the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afwerki. Days later, about 11 journalists were arrested after several of them wrote a letter to the Ministry of Information demanding clarification on the decision to shut down the private press.

Journalists who spoke to CPJ initially said that Idris was arrested over his February 2001 article in Tsigenay which criticized the government’s language policies in education, an archived translation of which has been published by the U.S.-based news website Awate. But PEN Eritrea said in a 2015 article that Idris also drew ire for denouncing the wave of arrests of politicians and journalists in September 2001. 

Idris had a severe disability from his time as a fighter with Eritrea’s liberation movement, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of conflict, according to free speech organization PEN Eritrea. Amnesty International said this impairment would likely cause “special problems in detention.” 

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. 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 that seven of the journalists arrested in 2001 have died in custody. CPJ confirmed in 2007 that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention.

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

In 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 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 a May 2023 report, the U.N.’s 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.

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.