Monday, September 18, 2006


Lord Avebury, vice-chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, chairing a meeting on Eritrea at the Human Rights Center of Amnesty International at 17-25 New Inn Yard, London SE2A 3EA on September 18, 2006 at 17.00 said:

It is a matter of great regret to me that we need to be holding this meeting to discuss political and religious persecution in Eritrea, and the prolonged incommunicado detention of the victims. I was chair of the Eritrea Support Group in the 70s and 80s, when the people of Eritrea under Isaias Afewerke, now the President, were fighting their heroic war of liberation against the occupation by Ethiopia, and I remember well a visit to the front line just after the Ethiopian 6th offensive, when I met Comrade Isaias. I observed the successful referendum on independence in 1993, and I visited the front line during a lull in the war against renewed aggression by Ethiopia at the beginning of 2000. I have consistently upheld the findings of the international commission that was appointed with the agreement of both countries to solve their border dispute, and Eritrea’s right to insist that the international community carry that settlement into effect. The unnecessary war over the boundary led to the deaths of tens of thousands on both sides, the internal displacement on the Eritrean side of further tens of thousands, and the deportation from Ethiopia of 66,000 people of Eritrean origin.

With that background, I am extremely unhappy to acknowledge that the people of Eritrea have lost many of the freedoms they fought so hard to achieve. But the facts have to be faced. As Amnesty International have reminded us in the statement issued today, this is the fifth anniversary of the incommunicado detention of 11 former members of Parliament, 10 journalists, and hundreds of others, whose only crime was to call for democratic reforms. The MPs have been accused of treason, and the journalists labelled as spies and mercenaries, but none of the detainees have been charged in court, and none have had access to lawyers. In many cases, relatives don’t even know where they are detained.

In the case of the 11 MPs, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ rights found three years ago that Eritrea was in breach of four major Articles of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They urged the government of Eritrea to release the detainees and grant them compensation. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, at its most recent meeting in May, condemned the incommunicado detention of the Members, and appealed to the African Union to do everything possible to secure their release. The case will be considered again at the IPU Assembly meeting in Geneva on October 16.

The persecution of worshippers belonging to non-registered churches, and particularly the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is of great concern. In 2005 I wrote four times to the Eritrean Ambassador about particular cases including 20 conscientious objectors to military service, who had been detained since September 24, 1994 without charge or trial, though the maximum sentence under the law for refusing military service is three years. I mentioned reports by Amnesty International that the authorities had taken to arresting the fathers, mothers and other relatives of young men reaching the age of 18 who failed to report for military service and holding them as hostages, the allegation that some detainees were held in metal shipping containers, and the lack of an inquiry into the alleged killing of over a dozen conscription evaders at the Adi Abeto army camp on November 54, 2004.

I also took up the severe restrictions on freedom of expression, highlighted by the US State Department in their report on Eritrea. The Committee to Protect Journalists had described Eritrea as the worst country in Africa for detaining journalists, and they have just now repeated their critique of what they describe as Eritrea’s ‘brutal crackdown on the independent press’. CPJ did manage to speak to a presidential spokesman, Yemane Gebremeskel, who said the 13 journalists detained without trial since they were arrested in 2001 were involved in ‘acts against the national interests of the state’, but gave no indication of what the evidence was. Unconfirmed reports posted on websites indicate that the journalists had been moved to a secret prison, where three of them had died. The CPJ have been no more successful than I have in getting answers from Eritrean diplomats or government officials in Asmara, and the same goes for the Foreign Office. Ministers tell me that they continue to monitor human rights and religious freedoms in Eritrea closely, and raise their concerns with the Eritrean government whenever possible. But they appear to rely, as we do, on the reports of Amnesty International, the CPJ, and the international representatives of persecuted religious minorities.

I certainly think the Eritreans would get more active support from democratic states than they do in their just cause against Ethiopia if they took positive steps in the direction of freedom and the rule of law, in the name of which presumably they were fighting over the thirty years of the liberation war. Replacing the oppression of Addis Ababa with the home-grown dictatorship of the former hero of the independence struggle was not the objective for which a generation sacrificed their lives. Nor is it consistent with the statement by the Commission for Africa, which nobody has challenged, that ‘the issue of goof governance’’’ lies at the core of Africa’s problems’. There is huge potential in Eritrea, based on the ingenuity and tenacity of its people, and even more so that the rest of Africa, it could have today its best opportunity for change for decades. But it reminds me of the question about the number of psychiatrists needed to change a light bulb. The answer is one, but he has to be willing to change. I hope that Isaias is willing, and that he will listen to the message being sent by the true friends of Eritrea meeting tonight.

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