By Sheila B. Keetharuth
Tigrai Online - June 02, 2013
23. Eritrea and some of its immediate neighbours (Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Sudan and Yemen) have had troubled relations over border issues. While some issues have been resolved, others persist, spawning a set of circumstances qualified by the Eritrean authorities as a “no war no peace” state of affairs. A case in point was the war of 1998-2000 with Ethiopia, and the non-implementation of the ruling issued by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission in 2002. These unresolved issues contribute to the country’s regional and international isolation, its internal political situation and, more importantly, it has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights in the country. The State’s foreign and security policy should be viewed historically and in the context of these unresolved border issues.
24. Since 2009, the Security Council has adopted a number of key resolutions regarding Eritrea: resolution 1862 (2009), on the country’s border dispute with Djibouti; resolution 1907 (2009), in which the Council imposed a targeted sanctions regime, including an arms embargo on both imports and exports, on Eritrea for its failure to comply with resolution 1862 (2009); and resolution 2033 (2011), in which the Council expanded restrictive measures in the area of the diaspora taxes and the State’s mining sector and financial services.
25. In an attempt to strengthen its regional engagement, in 2011, Eritrea reopened its mission to the African Union, which had been closed after the outbreak of the conflict with Ethiopia. Eritrea is also seeking re-admission to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Furthermore, since 2012 it has resumed attending the ordinary sessions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. All these initiatives may be construed as efforts to end a largely self-imposed isolation.
26. While acknowledging the seriousness of border issues, it is the humble view of the Special Rapporteur that these should not serve as an excuse for the appalling human rights situation in Eritrea, which in one way or another touches the life of almost every family. Most Eritreans that the Special Rapporteur met reported that there is no family in the country that has not known death, arrest, detention or exile.
42. In accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 20/20, in which the Council cited widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur endeavoured to corroborate patterns of human rights violations through the collection of first-hand testimonies and interviews. According to the information collected, human rights violations committed in Eritrea include, but are not limited to, extrajudicial killings; the ruthless implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy of persons attempting to cross borders; enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention; arbitrary arrests and detentions; widespread torture, both physical and psychological, during interrogation by the police, military and security forces; inhumane prison conditions; compulsory national service of an unspecified and extended duration; no respect for civil liberties, including the freedoms of expression and opinion, assembly, association, religious belief and movement; discrimination against women, and sexual and gender-based violence; violation of child rights, including conscription, which has a profound impact on education; and precarious living conditions. These violations were cited as reasons pushing a constant stream of Eritreans to cross the borders.
43. An unknown number of people have been shot near the Eritrean borders with Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Sudan, allegedly for attempting to cross illegally. Border military personnel have standing orders to implement a shoot-to-kill policy to those attempting to flee. The policy was confirmed in the discussions and interviews held by the Special Rapporteur with several former military personnel who had been required to implement it, as well as with those who had been victims of the practice. The account of a young woman who was shot while crossing the border in 2012 was particularly harrowing. After her first attempt to cross failed, she was imprisoned at Sawa detention centre for almost a year, without her family being informed. When she attempted to cross the border again, she was shot seven times, in the leg, foot, hand and breast, but still managed to escape. She had to be hospitalized for nine months.
44. Owing to the harsh conditions at the Sawa military training camp, students commit suicide or fall ill and die. In one year, two girls died. For having failed to clean the bathroom, a female student was punished by being forced to roll on the hot ground, thus sustaining severe burns to her body. Unable to bear the pain, she leaned on a live electric wire and was electrocuted. Her friend, who was trying to rescue her, also died. When students die in Sawa, their bodies are buried in a graveyard with no tombstones. Parents are rarely informed about the death of a child.
45. Relatives of those who are arrested and detained are rarely informed, but tend to find out by chance through other detainees who have been released. In addition, Eritrean nationals who are repatriated after a failed refugee or asylum application usually disappear upon their return. The practice of enforced disappearance is used to intimidate people, to install a climate of fear and to deter people from claiming their rights.
46. While unknown numbers of Eritreans have disappeared, the most prominent cases include 11 political leaders, members of the “G-15”, and 10 journalists, all of whom were arrested in 2001. To date, the Government has refused to provide any information on their fate.
47. The reluctance to give any indication about the above group and about the thousands of others who have disappeared is distressing, and points to a total disregard for the principle of accountability and respect for international human rights law. The Government of Eritrea needs to tell family members and the international community whether they are still alive. In the meetings of the Special Rapporteur with Eritrean delegates, she endeavoured to ask, where (if the answer was yes) these persons were and about their current state of health. She asked whether they had access to medical care, if needed. Families should be allowed to meet them. In addition, she asked why, after 12 years, they had not been brought before an independent court of law to be charged with a crime recognized under international law. To date, the Special Rapporteur has not received any answer to her questions.
48. There have been thousands of victims of enforced disappearance or incommunicado detention in Eritrea. There are those who disappeared at one point in time and subsequently reappeared with stories of incommunicado incarceration and torture or who remain silent because of threats to their lives or their family if they were to speak. There are those who never return and about whom nothing is ever heard. And there are those who disappear and whose dead bodies are returned. The consequences of the absence of the disappeared person can have a serious impact on the whole family, with women and children bearing the brunt because of their vulnerable situations.
49. Government officials, zonal administrators, community and religious leaders, businesspeople, journalists and teachers, as well as ordinary citizens expressing critical views or posing questions, have been jailed for explicit or inferred opposition to the Government or its policies. Mere suspicion appears to be enough for somebody to be subjected to interrogation and detention without charge or without being brought before a court of law. The number of Eritreans jailed for their perceived political opposition is difficult to confirm, but may be as high as 10,000.4 They are often held indefinitely without access to family members or lawyers, and there are no court appearances or public trials.
4 A/HRC/WG.6/6/ERI/3, para. 15.
50. From several accounts, it would appear that the modus operandi adopted involves detainees being arrested at night, or kidnapped, blindfolded and driven around before being subjected to interrogation by agents in civilian clothes. They are either dumped in a cell in an underground prison or in another secret place of detention. They do not know where they have been taken to (nor do their families), and are too afraid to ask. They are removed from their places of detention for interrogation at regular intervals. The identities of interrogators are kept secret, as they shroud their faces.
51. The number of people arrested and detained without charge or due process amounts to thousands. National service evaders or escapees, and those suspected of wanting to flee or caught during flight further swell detention figures and may reach tens of thousands.
52. Invariably, detainees are held without being informed about the reason for their arrest and without an arrest warrant. Prison conditions are life threatening, harsh, degrading and unhygienic. Food rations are generally poor, and the nutritional value and quality of the food and water supplies provided to detainees are inadequate. Those in underground prisons do not see daylight for months at a time.
53. Individuals arrested arbitrarily are subjected to physical and psychological torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The information gathered confirmed that torture is regularly used in Eritrean prisons, military barracks and at Sawa – a one-stop service consisting of a school, a military training camp and a detention facility all in one, as well as other military training camps.
54. Political prisoners, other detainees, military deserters, “refouled” refugees, failed asylum seekers and students at Sawa are subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Detainees are particularly vulnerable to abuse, as they are held incommunicado, without legal procedures or safeguards, while access by family, doctors or lawyers is denied, in blatant disregard for international human rights standards. Perpetrators are not prosecuted or punished, thus perpetuating a culture of impunity.
55. Former detainees described various types of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment inflicted upon them, which is still being used today, including:
(a) The helicopter: the victim is stripped, hands and feet tied at the back and then tied to a tree, hanging or raised above the ground just enough to force the victim to stand on their toes for long periods, with their hands tied to the tree; the victim is then made to lie face down on the ground in the hot sun, the rain or at night in the cold. The victim may be kept in this position for 24 hours, sometimes with two to three short meal or toilet breaks, at the whim of the person inflicting the punishment;
(b) “Otto” (Eight): the victim’s hands are tied behind their back and they are left to lie face down on the ground;
(c) Pistols are regularly pointed at detainees during interrogation;
(d) Detainees are beaten all over the body and on the soles of the feet with a thick metal chain or bar;
(e) Sugar is spread on the lips of the detainee, whose hands and feet are tied. The detainee is then left outside, where swarms of flies are drawn to the sugar, forcing the detainee to make a repetitious neck movement to dispel the flies, leading to severe neck strain; alternatively, the whole of the detainee’s body is smeared with milk and sugar, causing flies and other insects to attack.
56. Obtaining information from inside Eritrea poses severe challenges; it was therefore impossible for the Special Rapporteur to know how many secret detention centres, holding cells such as shipping containers or underground bunkers controlled by the military or internal security service exist. These are scattered throughout the country, at times in areas where temperatures soar to almost 48 degrees Celsius. Not all are officially designated prisons, and outsiders are not permitted access. Deaths in prison from torture.
overcrowding, disease, inadequate food and other harsh conditions are frequent, though no exact figures were available.