EU governments must support Eritrea’s prisoners of conscience

24-05-2010 , ed. The Guardian

Eritrea has held Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak without charge for eight years. The west must stand up to this brutal regime.

While we cannot be sure that there is a heaven, three weeks ago we received partial confirmation that hell is a reality with a known location. Its address is the infamous Eiraeiro prison in Eritrea, 10 miles north of the capital city Asmara, where 35 high-level political prisoners of the Eritrean regime have been held captive in recent years.

Fifteen of these prisoners are known to have died, nine are suffering from serious medical problems and the others are enduring brutal prison conditions. One of them is the journalist Dawit Isaak, a Swedish citizen, who was first detained in 2001. He was briefly released in 2005, only to be rearrested again within days. In all of his eight and a half years of detention, he has never been formally charged with a crime. Isaak and nine journalist colleagues were arrested seemingly for nothing more than criticising the lack of press freedom and democratic debate in Eritrea.

The most recent revelations of a former prison guard who managed to flee to neighbouring Ethiopia in January, and whose information was first reported in Sweden in April, make clear that Isaak and other inmates are kept in horrendous circumstances. They are not allowed any contact with the outside world or with each other. Their cells are brutally hot almost all year round. They are constantly shackled and the only time they leave their cells is to spend one hour per day in a walled courtyard measuring four square meters. The men receive virtually no medical care and many appear to be psychologically broken.

According to a former guard, who fled because he feared for his own life if the prisoners died, the deprivations suffered by the inmates are « worse than torture ». Under pressure from critics, the Swedish government has repeatedly refused comment, asserting that it is doing everything it can to rescue Dawit Isaak. The Swedish public, Isaak’s family and human rights activists are increasingly concerned, however, that Isaak, who suffers from diabetes, may be lost before help reaches him. Their concerns appear well justified.

Why, for example, have Swedish officials so far not bothered to interview the escaped prison guard?

We would like to stress that we do not completely discount the value of silent diplomacy. While we fully appreciate the enormous difficulties and complexities of the case, the question that presents itself most urgently is, what can we all do together to save Isaak before it is too late? Efforts at the EU level, such as seeking the suspension of aid to Eritrea, as well as applying diplomatic pressure on the regime, are vitally important. The EU process is slow and bureaucratic, and the representatives’ attention is currently diverted by the spreading global financial crisis.-> More

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