Clues to the "crimes" on trial here can be found in a stack
of Tigrigna-language clippings from newspapers that were eventually shut by the
government in fall 2001. With titles including Setit, Meqaleh ("Echo"), Keste
Debena ("Rainbow"), and Admas ("Horizon"), they are relics of the once-vibrant private
Beginning in 2000, private newspapers that had not previously questioned the policies of President Isaias Afewerki became more assertive following a split in the ruling elite, explained Simon Weldehaimanot, one of two Eritrean human rights lawyers behind the documentary project. The split pitted loyal supporters of Afewerki, the former guerilla leader, against reformers, including the 11 on trial here.
"The fact that a significant portion of the once-unified ruling party publicly dissented with the government emboldened the private press," Weldehaimanot said. In fact, many of the dissidents gave interviews and wrote newspaper columns critical of the government. For instance, in its August 10, 2001 edition, Setit reports the dismissal of the president of the High Court of Asmara after he accused the government of interfering with the judiciary.
"It was an unprecedented battle of ideas being communicated via the newspapers, and that's why we use these newspapers to reflect on that time," Weldehaimanot said. The published statements are referenced throughout the proceedings to document a timeline of political developments and as articles of evidence.
The private press coverage of this national debate earned the papers popularity with Eritrean readers, according to Weldehaimanot, a university student at the time. "Wherever you used to go, you used to see people reading. By 10 a.m., all the papers were gone. But people were so kind, they would either hand you their copy or photocopy it for you."
But editorials questioning the government's policies or
airing dissenting opinions, such as one in the July 26, 2001, edition of Meqaleh,
which called on the government to review its policy on conscription of journalists
into national service, drew increasingly harsh government responses. Meqaleh
Editor Mattewos Habteab was detained
just a few days after the publication of the editorial and was held
incommunicado for four weeks. He was re-arrested
in September 2001 and is, to this day, one of at least 13 journalists thought
to remain in secret prisons without charge or trial in
Semere Kesete, a close friend of Habteab and a lawyer co-directing the film, was once a contributor to Meqaleh and Setit. He published several critical analyses of executive excesses in the Eritrean legal system--until he became the story, as evidenced by an article in an August 10, 2001, edition of Setit. The story, headlined "Asmara University Student Union president not yet charged," refers to Kesete's arrest after he criticized government interference in academic affairs during a graduation speech. Worse, when a judge ordered his release after the state prosecutor failed to formulate charges, police threw him into prison and summarily arrested some 3,000 students on the courthouse grounds. Kesete later escaped from prison after a year of solitary confinement.
The Eritrean government's disregard for due process is illustrated in presidential rhetoric. Commenting on the case of imprisoned journalist Dawit Isaac, the president declared: "We don't take [him] to trial. We know how to deal with him and others like him and we have our own ways of dealing with that."
This film, to be called "Hear the Other Side," is a perfect response. The producers hope to release the documentary by September, the anniversary of the government's roundup of dissidents and journalists. Plans for the release are still in the works, although the producers hope to arrange screenings and distribute online. The law school, which Kesete now attends, is providing courtroom space and editing facilities.
(Reporting from Tempe, Ariz.)