Berhane Abrehe turned 75 on 18 May in an Eritrean prison. His son, 27-year-old Efrem, has not seen or spoken to his father for two years.
“We have received no information at all about my father. I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead,” Efrem told New Frame. “The pain follows you everywhere. There’s never a point when you can rest. Not knowing where your loved ones are – if they are safe or suffering – is a torture that thousands of [Eritrean] families are going through.”
Abrehe is one of thousands of Eritreans who have been detained and held without trial for years – often incommunicado – over criticising the totalitarian and frequently brutal regime of President Isaias Afwerki. Arbitrary detention is routine in Eritrea and prisoners are held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without adequate access to food, water or medical care.
Human rights groups have long demanded the release of Eritrean prisoners of conscience and political prisoners. Now as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the world, these calls have intensified.
“If the virus enters the [Eritrean] detention facilities, it’s going to have a devastating impact,” said Fisseha Tekle, a researcher for Eritrea and Ethiopia at Amnesty International. “The appalling conditions in the prisons will facilitate the widespread transmission of the virus, and there are no adequate medical services for the prisoners. This could be disastrous. But we’re dealing with a government that does not care about the health conditions of their detainees.”
The Eritrean government enforced a 21-day lockdown and has recently announced that the country is “virus free” after all 39 of their confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus allegedly recovered. But critics and rights groups are sceptical.
Governments around the world have released prisoners to reduce the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak among their vulnerable prison populations – and bereaved families of prisoners, rights groups, exiled scholars and the UN have urged Eritrea to follow suit.
“Thousands of people are imprisoned in Eritrea who shouldn’t be imprisoned at all,” Tekle told New Frame. “Whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic or not, most of the prisoners in Eritrea should be free. But the government should use Covid-19 as an opportunity to do the right thing and decongest the prisons of people who are unjustly in detention.”
For three decades, Eritreans led an armed guerilla struggle against Ethiopia for independence. Thousands of Eritrean villagers, including women and children, were systematically massacred and maimed by the Ethiopian army. Cluster bombs, napalm and phosphorus bombs were indiscriminately dropped on Eritrean civilians.
But in 1991, the small northeast African state of Eritrea, located along the coast of the Red Sea, defeated the Ethiopian army and declared its independence. In 1993, Afwerki, who led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to the country’s independence victory, was declared the head of the newly established state.
Eritrea’s hard-won independence struggle, however, was turned upside down as Afwerki tightened his grip on Eritrean politics and life. In 2001, 15 senior officials of the ruling party People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), now known as the “G-15”, signed an open letter to Afwerki, urging him to implement the constitution and allow elections and other political parties – none of which were permitted since the country’s independence.
Eleven of the 15 politicians were subsequently arrested; the other four were outside of the country at the time and have continued to live in exile. The government summarily banned all private media outlets and arrested journalists who had reported on the letter.
The officials and journalists have since been held incommunicado, and are believed to be imprisoned at a remote and secret prison camp called Eiraeiro, where detainees are allegedly kept in total isolation and undergo routine torture; some have their hands and feet shackled 24 hours a day. The families have not been provided information about their imprisoned loved ones, but reports suggest that more than half of the detainees have died behind bars.
The string of arrests marked the beginning of a two-decade-long nightmare for many Eritreans, who have found themselves inside one of the most oppressive regimes in the world – often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”.
Abrehe, Eritrea’s former Minister of Finance, was arrested in September 2018, a week after the publication of his two-volume book entitled Eritrea Hagerey or Eritrea My Country, which criticised Afwerki’s administration and urged Eritreans to struggle for democracy.
Along with the book, Abrehe released a voice recording that challenged Afwerki to a televised public debate on the conditions in Eritrea. He was kidnapped by security agents while walking around his neighborhood in the capital city of Asmara, accompanied by his nephew and 18-year-old son, and has not been heard from since.
“My father had a strong will and felt like he had to do something,” explained Abrehe’s son Efrem, who had already fled the country through neighboring Sudan, eventually ending up in the United States, when his father was detained.
“He dedicated so many years to the country’s liberation and he felt like all of the sacrifices and struggles of the Eritrean people would be in vain if he didn’t try to do something to stop what’s happening [there].”
Efrem fears for his father’s wellbeing in prison. Shortly before Abrehe was detained, he had undergone a liver transplant and needed to take specific medications. “We are very worried about his health,” Efrem said, adding that the conditions in Eritrea’s prisons make him susceptible to health complications and contracting infectious diseases.
The crux of the Eritrean government’s extensive system of control is its compulsory and indefinite national service, which a 2016 UN commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea equated to mass enslavement.
At least 15% of Eritrea’s population has fled the country in the past two decades – and hundreds continue to flee each month. While Eritrea is smaller than the US state of Pennsylvania, its territory is dotted with an extensive network of hundreds of secret and public prisons where at least 10 000 prisoners of conscience are held.
Eritrea’s prison network represents an “infrastructure of total repression”, Amnesty International has stated.
No toilets, no soap
Eritrean detention centres often use underground cells and metal shipping containers to house prisoners and are located in the desert where weather conditions are harsh, according to Amnesty International.
All of Eritrea’s detention facilities are overcrowded and unclean, and food and drinking water are scarce. The rights group has received numerous reports of deaths in detention as a result of torture, appalling conditions and suicide.
In a recent report released by Amnesty International, the group detailed alarming conditions in four congested prisons in Eritrea, where most of the detainees are being held without charge or trial. In the Mai Serwa Asmera Flowers facility, which is a de facto forced labour camp for Jehovah’s Witnesses and other detainees, there are no toilets and prisoners are forced to relieve themselves out in the open.
Detainees are rarely allowed to bathe or wash their clothes, and they are fed a rationed and non-nutritious diet consisting of tea, bread and lentil sauce. Many of the prisoners, who are living in conditions of extreme overcrowding, suffer from serious ailments including “mental illnesses, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, anemia, diarrhea, asthma, tuberculosis, eye and ear infections and gastro-intestinal infections,” the report noted.
“Most of the prisoners don’t have enough space for sleep because of the overcrowding,” Tekle told New Frame. “The detainees sleep in turns because there’s not enough space to accommodate everyone on the floor.”
The doctors at the prisons are only trained to provide first aid and the prisoners must pay for their own medication, according to Tekle. Before the lockdown, prisoners often relied on their families during weekly prison visitations to provide supplementary food or personal hygiene products, like soap, that are not provided by prison authorities.
But since the government’s Covid-19 response, which has barred visits to the country’s prisons, the prisoners’ access to basic supplies needed to protect themselves from the coronavirus has been cut off.
Prison is a part of life
“There is a common saying in Eritrea that you aren’t truly an Eritrean unless you’ve been arrested at least once or twice,” Tekle told New Frame. “Prison is a part of life in Eritrea. It’s not something that you can avoid because government officials can imprison you if they don’t like the colour of your eyes.”
“And if they choose to, they can keep you there for years – and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he added. “You won’t be able to access a lawyer or stand in a court of law. The whole system of imprisonment is arbitrary.”
And it is not just prisoners of conscience, Tekle explains. Attempting to flee the country, evading national conscription or practising a religion that is not Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Evangelical (Lutheran) – the only religions recognised by the state, can land you in prison without charge or trial for years.
Eritrean-American Ciham Ali, for instance, was detained by security forces in 2012 when she was just 15 while attempting to cross from Eritrea into Sudan. Her family has still not been made aware of Ali’s whereabouts, throwing them into the familiar torment of uncertainty that has become the everyday reality for scores of Eritrean families.
Eritrea’s Covid-19 response has done little to comfort the families of Eritrean political prisoners. They regard the government’s official Covid-19 numbers with suspicion and believe that even if there was an outbreak in the prisons the government would not admit it.
According to Tekle, the Eritrean government’s control over information and lack of transparency has caused a deep distrust of the state’s official narrative around its Covid-19 response and the extent of infections in the country. “There are no checks and balances or any accountability structures, so there’s no way of knowing if they are speaking the truth or not,” Tekle said.
But families can only hope that the Eritrean government is telling the truth for the sake of their loved ones inside the country’s prisons.
Esayas Isaak knows that even if his older brother, 55-year-old Dawit, died in prison, the Eritrean government would not inform him. Despite not receiving any information on Dawit for years, Esayas believes he is still alive.
Dawit, a prominent Swedish-Eritrean journalist, was arrested in 2001 along with the G-15. After pressure from the Swedish government and others, Dawit was released in 2005, but re-arrested just two days later and has been held incommunicado since.
“My brother and I were very close,” Esayas, 45, told New Frame. “When Dawit was arrested, I thought he would be released after a few months – maybe around Christmas. Then a few months turned into one year, and then two years. I kept thinking he would be released after some time. But I never thought it would end up being decades.”
A man who fled Eritrea into Ethiopia and allegedly worked as a guard at the Eiraeiro prison camp claimed a decade ago that Dawit was being held in solitary confinement at Eiraeiro in a 12-metre windowless cell and was in poor physical and mental health at the time.
“I think about my brother every single day,” Esayas said. “I worry about his health and how the conditions in the prison must have weakened him. We are always concerned about his mental and physical health, but now Covid-19 has added to our worries.”
“I’m very scared for him,” he added.