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Eritrean official says jailed journalists were security threat

Senior Eritrean Advisor Yemani Gebreab told Swedish daily Aftonbladet that the government had decided to “move forward,” leaving imprisoned journalists in the eternal oblivion of indefinite detention.
Since a week after September 11, 2001, when the government of Eritrea threw into secret prisons journalists from its once-vibrant private press, the only certainty it has offered about the fate of the prisoners has been ambiguity. Over the years, officials have offered various explanations for the arrests—from nebulous anti-state conspiracies involving foreign intelligence to press law violations. They have even denied that the journalists themselves ever existed. From the Eritrean president to the public relations officer with the Eritrean Ministry of Information, Eritrean officials have been consistent in their refusal to disclose whether the journalists are alive or dead and their suggestion that the journalists will be held indefinitely without formal charge or trial.

On Sunday, a senior Eritrean official added to the painful uncertainty endured by the families and colleagues of the imprisoned journalists, such as Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac, by stating that the government had decided to “move forward,” leaving the journalists and other jailed political dissidents in the eternal oblivion of indefinite detention.

Yemani Gebreab, a senior adviser to Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki, said this in an exclusive interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström published on the website of Sunday leading Swedish daily Aftonbladet on Sunday. Gebreab, head of political affairs of Eritrea’s ruling Party For Democracy and Justice, and a target of U.S. sanctions in connection with Eritrea’s alleged involvement in Somalia, was in Sweden attending last week’s Eritrean Festival, an annual fundraising and cultural event exclusive to expat supporters of the Eritrean government.

Asked about the basis of Isaac’s imprisonment, the 59-year-old former top propagandist for Eritrea’s guerilla liberation movement said the journalist was being held for “very serious crimes regarding Eritrea's national security and survival as an independent state.” Pressed for details about the alleged crimes, Gebreab said Isaac was involved in a “conspiracy” by a group of Eritreans “to facilitate” an invasion of the country by archfoe neighbor Ethiopia during the bloody border war between the two countries.

Aaron Berhane, the exiled former editor-in-chief of Isaac’s newspaper, Setit, remembers the war period very differently. “At that time, the Eritrean government supported the private press by all means,” he told me, explaining that authorities gave journalists the go ahead to move freely, and exempted them from military draft. “We never criticized the government during that war because the Eritrean press law did not allow us to speak on internal affairs during wartime,” Berhane said. “The government was happy with that because we were focused on countering the Ethiopian propaganda and mobilize people to defend the country.”

The war simmered to it present stalemate in June 2000 and by the time the Eritrean government carried out the September 2001 roundup of political dissidents and editors such as Isaac, the private newspapers had shifted focus toward scrutinizing national affairs. “Once the border conflict was over, we said we now have to look at what’s going on in the country and when we started asking tough questions, then the government became very upset,” Berhane said.

Isaac’s brother, Esayas, who lives in Sweden, had harsher words about Gebreab. “You know, these guys always come up with a new conspiracy every year,” he said. “Last year, it was the so-called CIA plot. This is not surprise for me or any serious Eritrean. Everyone who has followed this case knows he’s a liar.”

Gebreab’s comments at times did appear to be at odds with facts. “We were never given an opportunity to express our point of view on this issue,” he claimed, adding “there’s nothing we hide, and therefore we’re willing to communicate and express our views.” Yet, just seconds later, when Boström asked him to give assurances as to whether Isaac was still alive, Gebreab deflected: “I don’t think there’s any point in discussing the specifics of the issue and I have given reason why he’s in detention. The specifics I don’t believe are very important.”

Questioned about Eritrea’s refusal to grant Isaac a day in court, Gebreab was equally vague. “This is a special case for us,” he said. “For this reason, there was a deliberate decision made by the Eritrean government and explained and discussed by the Eritrean people that this was the best way for us to go.”

He justified the Eritrean policy by saying, “We can talk about many, many countries over the past decade or so, especially after the events of 9/11. Many countries have held people they felt were a serious threat to their security.” He went on: “So I don't think it's fair to accuse Eritrea on this point and I don't believe that many of those who accuse Eritrea on this issue really have the moral high ground to accuse Eritrea on this issue.”

While Eritrea is among the few nations as diverse as Iran and the United States who have detained journalists for prolonged periods without charge or trial, the Red Sea nation stands out as the only country to maintain that the condition of the journalists is a state secret while denying them due process. Some of the imprisoned journalists are believed to have died in custody, including Fessehaye ”Joshua” Yohannes.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Gebreab should ask: “Can’t Swedish media find something positive to say about Eritrea?”

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Comments

For how long are the dictator of Eritrea keep laying to the world ? The crazy, day dreamer President of Eritrea, Mr. Issayas, is so scared of the whole world, that by imprisoning the poor jounalist Dawit, he could close the mouth of the people, the mouth of the world. Eritrea has no constituation, the presedent himself is not elected by the people, even if he wants to put the journalists and other prisoners to the court, under which law can he judge them?
But the worst is the weak U.N. sanction which is giving this man and his stoogies to keep on roaming around the world, and tell thier part, with no shame. Lord save Eritrea.

When it comes to National security the Eritrean government has a duty to ensure the nation is safe.
As a citizen of Eritrea I demand the Eritrean government to continue working on their investigation and any one ready to sacrifice our independence should be captured and detained.
Can those who are ready to speak for Dawit speak for Eritrean people and children’s who are hold as a hostage by the illegal occupation of Eritrean land even after a final and binding decision is Dawit Isaak rights better than other Eritreans?
I hope there will be time soon when Dawit Isaac would be free, my advice to Dawits family is to actually work with Eritrean government than with those who demonise Eritrea for agenda of their own.

How much of this are we suppose to take. it is an insult to Eritrean people on top of everything else.

Let alone the journalists all the citizens are not free in Eritrea, whether we accept the reality or not, IT IS TRUE and FACT. Eritrea has become a nation of detention to its own people because of the ruling party, HIGEDEFE. Please let all of us do not hide our self from the real situation that we are facing from ISSAIAS’ ruling and his followers. It is because them, all the people have become refugee all over the world after 30 years of war for freedom and lost all the respect we had before. It would be much better and fruitful if SHABIA criticizes its system and make the citizen to live in the county. It would not be a surprise if Yemane lies, how many times all the officials lies for the last 20 years, IT IS HIGDEFIE’S IDENIITY.

An excellent article. I think the next question is, why have the European powers been so unsupportive of the case of Dawit, the other imprisoned journalists, or indeed the entire "youth" (16-47) of the country who are out on compulsory national service (read forced labour camps) digging trenches and building roads for the EU aid programme?

Sweden, the UK and the EU say they prefer 'quiet diplomacy', frankly a patronising whitewash. One sniff of Al-Qaeda and 'quiet diplomacy' is abandoned in favour of sanctions. The message is “you can torture your own people as much as you like, we will even continue with the aid, just don’t mess with our foreign policy”. The Eritrean people deserve better than their government, and they deserve better from the European Union. Write to your MEP.