Thursday 21 May 2009

Eriteria: A giant prison

Eritrea is a small country whose government inflicts extraordinary horror on its people. A report yesterday from Human Rights Watch, describing this 21st-century African form of fascism, deserves quoting at length:

"There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom of worship, and much of the adult male and female population is conscripted into indefinite national service where they receive a token wage. Dissent is not tolerated. Any criticism or questioning of government policy is ruthlessly punished. Detention, torture and forced labour await anyone who disagrees with the government, anyone who attempts to avoid military service or flee the country without permission, and anyone found practising or suspected of practising faiths the government does not sanction."

This is a tragedy not just for the 4 million people who live in Eritrea (and the many who have fled, because despite its size it is a leading source of refugees) but for everyone who championed the Eritrean cause during its great struggle for freedom. For 30 years Eritreans fought their Ethiopian oppressors - first Haile Selassie and then Mengistu's brutal Communism - at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Their cause was described movingly by Thomas Keneally in his book, Towards Asmara. When independence came, in 1993, there seemed to be every prospect of success under a democratic constitution and a charismatic president, Isaias Afewerki.

Instead he has led his country into a brutal state of armed readiness, gripped by the possibility of war with Ethiopia. As yesterday's report shows, the regime exploits this border dispute to sustain its terror. It could be settled: a UN commission has proposed a solution. But all dissent in Eritrea has been silenced. Members of the so-called G-15 group inside the ruling party, who called for democratic bodies to return, vanished into the country's network of secret prisons in 2001. Many detainees are kept in the desert, some underground, or in shipping containers. Torture is ubiquitous. Border guards have orders to shoot to kill.

Can the world do anything to end Eritrea's misery? The country has bad relations with all its neighbours, apart from Sudan; like North Korea or Burma, it has turned from the world. International agencies have mostly been expelled. It does not listen to protest. But it depends on money extracted from exiles, a 2% tax demanded from the diaspora, with the threat of collective punishment for families whose members do not pay. In 2003, the report says, the Eritrean embassy in London raised $6.2m. Choking off this supply might force some improvement.

Hundreds of Eritrean refugees forcibly repatriated from countries like Libya, Egypt and Malta face arrest and torture upon their return, says the group.

Religious persecution and forced labour are also rife in Eritrea, says HRW.

HRW says there is no independent civil society and all independent media outlets have been shut down.

People under the age of 50 are rarely granted visas to leave the country and those who try to do so without documentation face imprisonment and torture or being shot at the border, says the group.

Prisoners are often held in underground cells or in shipping containers with dangerously high temperatures, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Christians are being rounded up and tortured on a regular basis, says the group.

The BBC's Pascale Harter spoke to Salamay, a 16-year-old Eritrean refugee in Italy.

She said she fled when police began rounding up youths in her village for national service.

In Sudan, she said a family took her hostage and forced her to work without pay.

In Libya, she was taken to a prison where inmates faced rape every night by the guards.

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