Dawit Isaak: in an Eritrean prison since 2001 without ever being tried
A couple of articles in yesterday’s NY Times caught my eye. The first was titled “U.N. Accuses Eritrea’s Leaders of Crimes Against Humanity” and claimed that an inquiry had found government officials guilty of enslavement, imprisonment and disappearances, torture, rape and murder. The second was titled “Eritrean Accused of Trafficking Migrants Is Captured in Sudan, Italy Says” and identified him as the head of a smuggling ring responsible for 359 deaths when a vessel capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013. Today’s NY Times has a follow-up article that says that the wrong man might have been arrested but there is no doubt about the fact that a boat did capsize and that 359 people drowned.
Looking at the original report on the tragic accident (homicide more exactly), it states that most of the passengers were from Eritrea and Somalia. Somalia, a failed state, I can understand but Eritrea? Wasn’t that a country that had liberated itself from Ethiopia through the efforts of leftist guerrillas? If the U.N. was lying about human rights abuses in Eritrea, surely you could not falsify the nationalities of the drowned passengers. For that matter, emigration from Eritrea appears inexplicable given the fact that it is not plagued by war, jihadism and the crony capitalism that afflicts much of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
60,000 mostly young people flee Eritrea each year, constituting about 1 percent of the population. For comparison’s sake, this would amount to over 3 million people emigrating from the USA each year. What is fueling this wholesale flight?
For some Eritrea is a model for other developing countries. Andre Vltchek writes: “The Eritrean national flag is in the center of all that is happening, while independence, self-reliance, social justice and unity could be considered as basic pillars of the national ideology” but doesn’t address the refugee issue. Leave it to Eric Draitser to take that question head on. He says that the USA is luring them out of the country with promises of educational scholarships and other imperialist bribes. To back that up, he cites a 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks titled “Promoting Educational Opportunity for Anti-Regime Eritrean Youth”.
Unfortunately, Draitser does not link directly to the article but to the Wikileaks website home page. Is it possible that he wanted to make it a bit more difficult to track down the cable? If so, he didn’t do a very good job since Googling the title brings it up immediately. The second sentence states that the government closed the University of Asmara in 2005 and conscripted “almost all young adults into open-ended national service.”
Trouble had been brewing at the university for a number of years apparently, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on August 21, 2001 (behind a paywall):
Eritrean authorities arrested and detained about 2,000 students at the University of Asmara this month, one of whom died last Tuesday, according to Agence France-Presse.
The university and the government say they have no knowledge of where or how many students are being detained, or the circumstances behind the death of the student. But sources within the university say that Yirga Yosef died of heat stroke after three days’ detention at a camp in Wia with inadequate food or shelter from the desert sun.
According to a small group of detainees released last Tuesday, the University of Asmara students were arrested August 10 for refusing to enlist in Eritrea’s summer work camp until the government frees Semere Kesete, president of their student union. The students were rounded up outside the Supreme Court, where they were waiting for Mr. Kesete to receive his hearing, and inside their dormitories. They were detained at a stadium, then herded onto buses bound for the desert.
It would seem to me that this sort of repression would be a much more powerful incentive for young people to leave the country than any promises the USA made. Leaving your friends and family to go study in a foreign country using a new language is what most sensible people would regard as a burden. But then again Draitster is not very sensible.
Thomas Mountain: Who wants to waste time with trial by jury when you are building socialism?
If you want to hear the government’s defense of its policies, the go-to guy is Thomas Mountain who lives in Eritrea and pumps out a steady stream of articles with titles like “The Cuba of Africa”. Much of his journalism about Eritrea reads like a government handout even if he describes himself as an “independent journalist”:
To most Eritreans, 90% or more, and especially so amongst the youth doing their national service, Eritrean President Issias Aferworki is Eritrea’s George Washington, as in “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen”.
You don’t have to take my word for this, all you have to do is visit Eritrea during the carnival week leading up to Independence Day celebrations in May (like award winning producer Afshin Rattansi and his film crew did in 2012) and see for yourself the 100,000 and more young people partying in the streets, almost all of who are doing their national service duty.
I doubt that I will get much chance to visit Eritrea’s yearly carnival but hope that we can evaluate it politically and socially without making the trip. Not that I wouldn’t rule out that Thomas Mountain’s testimony prima facie but I do have to regard him skeptically after reading him on Libya.
Last August Ron Jacobs interviewed Thomas Mountain on CounterPunch. I recommend it as a useful guide to how a certain kind of leftist became a de facto publicist for a government that while promoting beneficial programs such as health care has turned a once promising revolutionary society into a police state.
In 1975 Mountain ended up in Hawaii on assignment for Bob Avakian’s RCP. He left the party in 1982 and became a supporter of the EPLF, the group that now rules Eritrea. For Mountain, Eritrea is a model for the rest of Africa. We learn from him that despite the U.N. reports and others like it from NGO’s like HRW and Amnesty International, it is not a police state. The cops do not even carry guns or batons. Furthermore, it has a generous social safety net including “easy access to clean drinking water, roads and bus services, schools and medical clinics.” Whatever problems it has can be blamed on drought and US economic sanctions. In other articles, Mountain has scoffed at the idea that the absence of elections in Eritrea means that it is not a democracy. The provision of clean drinking water, etc. is real democracy rather than voting.
But then again democracy is more than voting. It is about having a free press. In 2001 Dawit Isaak and ten other journalists were imprisoned for the crime of demanding democratic rights and the country’s independent newspapers were shut down. After being released for two days in 2005, Isaak was put back in prison where he remains to this day without ever standing trial (some believe he died there). Wikipedia reports that Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s ruler since 1993, saw no need for a trial: “We will not have any trial and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind.” At the risk of being branded a tool of the West, I think that keeping people locked up without a trial is a violation of socialist legality. Facile comparisons with Cuba break down when you consider Cuba’s strict adherence to the right of a speedy trial with proper representation.
You can read Thomas Mountain’s defense of the imprisonment of Dawit Isaak on Facebook. It accuses him of being a deserter from the army, an American spy, and lacking any credentials as a journalist. With all the evidence that Mountain claims to possess, maybe this amateur district attorney can prevail upon his pal Isaias Afwerki to finally put Isaak on trial so that he can be assigned the task of presenting his evidence to a jury rather than to readers of social media.
For people like Andre Vltchek, Eric Draitser and Thomas Mountain, there’s no need for trials and juries—who needs such imperialist-inspired impediments to the construction of socialism.
For those who are old fashioned enough to believe that constitutional rights of the sort that the late Michael Ratner defended apply to every country, I can only urge you to use the same yardstick on Eritrea’s government that you would use on any other including our own that has kept men locked up in Guantanamo for the same amount of time as Dawit Isaak and refused them the right to their day in court.
I would also urge you to consult the website of Dan Connell, who has written six books on Eritrea including “Building a New Nation”, an anthology of his articles about Eritrea spanning 25 years. Starting out as a defender of the EPLF, Connell has become one of its sharpest critics. Long before Mountain had written a word about Eritrea, Connell was reaching a mass audience through his reporting for the Washington Post such as an October 10, 1976 article titled “Behind Rebel Lines in Eritrea” that states:
But the guerrillas — or those we saw — were not fighting or guarding fortified positions; rather, they were operating hospitals and small factories, distributing food or hanging up their weapons to help peasants in the fields, building roads, running political educiation programs or caring for refu-gees. These thousands of trained and armed men and women were functioning less as a military force than as a sort of Eritrean Peace Corps — or, rather, as two rival Peace Corps.
But enough was enough. In an article titled “Escaping Eritrea: Why They Flee and What they Face” and written for the Fall 2012 MERIP, a left-of-center magazine mostly devoted to Middle East issues as its title indicates, Connell made the case against the country’s dictatorship. Let me conclude with a few citations and urge you to read the entire article and visit his website when you get a chance.
Said Ibrahim, 21, orphaned and blind, was making a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of Eritrea’s national security force claimed one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the Adi Abieto prison. After a month Said was released, but he was stripped of his monthly disability payments for two years when he refused to identify the lyricist. “I went back to my village and reflected about it,” he told me over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush camp in northern Ethiopia. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.” After appealing to his neighbors for help, two boys, aged 10 and 11, sneaked him into Ethiopia and all three asked for asylum.
The crackdown began in July 2001 with the arrest of a University of Asmara student leader after a commencement address criticizing the inhumane conditions of forced “national service.” It climaxed in September with the closure of the press and the arrest of top government officials who had criticized the president. Soon after, the government began rounding up young people accused of avoiding national service, with many beaten in public before being taken away for semi-permanent service in either the army or government departments and party-owned businesses. Over the next decade, dozens of new prisons were established to deal with the growing number of political prisoners, with every town and military unit having its own jail.
The roots of the present despotism lie within a movement that formed under conditions of unrelenting political repression necessitating secrecy and subterfuge for its very survival, that came under attack at one time or another from nearly every major regional and global power, and that, like most of its liberation movement contemporaries, drew on Leninist traditions of highly centralized authority for its inspiration. In Isaias’ case, this tendency was reinforced by training in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, during which he received intensive exposure to Maoist doctrine whose themes of extreme “voluntarism” and populism continue to define his worldview.  But Eritrean authoritarianism is not just an import.
Hanna and Zeray were 11 years old when their father, former minister of both foreign affairs and defense and a popular liberation army commander, was arrested on September 18, 2001, for joining other top government and party officials — the so-called Group of 15 — that criticized President Isaias in a private letter for his procrastination on implementing the constitution, his authoritarian control over the party and his conduct of peace negotiations with Ethiopia, among other issues. The Group of 15 had gone public after Isaias rebuffed them by publishing the letter on the Internet. But, as Hanna told me, they were at least fortunate not to witness the event, as he was taken prisoner while he was out of the house on his morning run. Nor did they witness the moment when their mother, Aster Yohannes, returned to Asmara from a period of study in the United States on December 23, 2003, with a promise of “safe passage” from then Eritrean Ambassador to the US Girma Asmorem only to be seized at the airport and imprisoned — like her husband — in secret and without a trial. The two detentions left the twins to be raised by their grandmother and other relatives, along with two other brothers, one older and one younger.
The three older children were arrested when, after graduating high school in 2009, they sought to escape Eritrea only to be caught and jailed like their parents and bounced from one military prison to another to prevent them from escaping. (Their grandmother and younger brother got away.) Once the twins were released — their older brother remains behind bars — they tried again, one at a time in this instance, rather than as a pair. They made it across the border to Sudan and then to Ethiopia where they have been since May 2011. I spoke with them in Addis Ababa where they are waiting to hear back on requests for asylum farther afield. In the meantime, they move about far more freely and easily than they ever did at home, in possession of temporary residence permits and left on their own to do as they wish. In an ironic twist, the safest place for them right now may be the country their government insists ought to be their arch-enemy, Ethiopia.