Medhanie Haile is one of several journalists arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Medhanie and the others. CPJ confirmed in 2007 that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that others, including Medhanie, perished in custody. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
Medhanie'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 2015 article published by The Guardian, Abraham Zere, executive director of the free speech advocacy group PEN Eritrea in Exile, wrote that Medhanie was a lawyer by profession who also worked for the ministry of justice. Medhanie wrote critical articles “calling for the rule of law to be firmly established in the country post-independence,” according to Abraham. Following the banning of the private press on September 18, 2001, Medhanie was one of a group of journalists that addressed a letter to the Ministry of Information asking for clarification, according to a 2009 blog post by Aaron Behrane, former editor of Setit newspaper who now lives in exile, published by CPJ.
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 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 have suggested the deaths of as many as seven journalists in custody
In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta cited a purported former Eritrean prison guard, Eyob Habte, as saying that Medhanie had died in Eiraeiro Prison for lack of medical care. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered it to be generally credible. In 2009, the London-based Eritrean opposition news site Assena published purported death certificates of Medhanie and three others.
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 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 members of the group are "political prisoners."
Eritrea’s government has not provided substantive information on Amanuel’s health or location. 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.