Beston: ′Eritrea must release political prisoners’ | Africa | DW | 09.05.2013
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Beston: 'Eritrea must release political prisoners’

An Amnesty International report accuses Eritrea of banning political opposition, quashing independent media and targeting minorities - claims dismissed by the government. DW spoke with the report's author, Claire Beston.

DW: What makes Eritrea one of the most repressive, secretive and inaccessible countries in the world?

Claire Beston: In Eritrea there is no freedom of expression, there is no independent media, and no opposition political parties, no civil society and human rights violations are committed on a vast scale.

There is very little ability for anyone to report on the situation, monitor or document human rights violations other than talking to asylum seekers who have fled the country. Amnesty International does not have access to Eritrea, and there are major restrictions on human rights organizations, media organizations or others who try to monitor the situation.

In this context, human rights violations happen on a very pervasive scale. Over the last 20 years of Eritrea's independence, the government has systematically used arbitrary arrests and detention without trial, to silence opposition and dissent. It also punishes anyone who refuses to comply with the system. Amnesty International believes that at least 10,000 people have been arrested over the 20 years for criticizing the government, for practicing their religion or for trying to flee the prospect of indefinite conscription into national service.

Why after 20 years of Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, do the people still have no independence?

I believe that's a question that has to be asked to the Eritrean authorities who are responsible for the violations documented in this report. What we can say is that throughout the 20 years, the government has shown a complete intolerance for dissent in any form.

Representatives of the Eritrean government do often cite their insecurity, that they say is caused by the ongoing hostile relations with Ethiopia. This is one of the main reasons cited for keeping the country on a permanent war footing and the compulsory conscription of all adults into national service.

But these reasons are not justifications for any human rights violations, and we are talking of human rights violations on a vast scale. People are conscripted into national service initially for a period of 18 months but very frequently this is extended indefinitely. Large numbers of people have spent over 10 years in national service where they have no choice about leaving, no choice about which job they do, they are on very low pay and these conditions amount to forced labor which is prohibited under international law.

What is the international community doing to condemn this practice of human rights violations in Eritrea?

The international community has shown that there is an understanding of the severity of the human rights situation in Eritrea. But more needs to be done by the international community, by Eritrea's allies and international forums such as the UN, to call on the Eritrean authorities to comply with their obligations under international law.

With this report, we are launching 20 days of action and calling on people around the world to take action by calling on the Eritrean authorities to end these violations, to end the widespread practice of arbitrary arrests and detention without trial, to release all prisoners of conscience. Other political prisoners should either be charged immediately with a recognizable offense or they too must be immediately released.

Finally, we are calling on the authorities to inform families about the whereabouts of their relatives, if necessary to inform these families whether their relatives are alive or dead.

Has there been any response from the Eritrean government to your report?

For a long time Amnesty has not had any contact with the Eritrean authorities. They refuse or don't respond to our requests for contact or for discussions, but on Thursday (10.05.2013) I attended a press conference given by the Eritrean ambassador in the UK.

The ambassador noted that there are no political prisoners in Eritrea and no one has been arrested for practicing their religion. In other words, he refuted all information given in the report. But what he says does not in any way match up with what we have heard from countless asylum seekers and refugees who have fled the country, who have been imprisoned for exercising their rights, or for trying to avoid national service, a system in which their rights are regularly violated. His statement contradicts the information we get from the families of countless prisoners who have never heard from their relatives again after they were arrested and all other sources of information which are compiled into this report. We will continue our requests for dialogue to discuss our concerns with the Eritrean authorities, and we hope at some point they will give us the opportunity to do so.

Claire Beston is a researcher with Amnesty International, and authored the report on repression in Eritrea.

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