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Time to Listen to Eritreans' Agonies

Haben Wogahta 06-24-15

The debate concerning sovereignty and humanitarian concerns is an old one. It has always been debatable how much and how far the community of nations should be involved in one another's issues.

Indeed, there are legitimate causes to hesitate from taking much humanitarian role.

First, every country has its own issues and priorities. The rich nations are today squeezed by protracted economic slowdown, anti-migrant domestic political trend, the threats of terrorism, and their own regional messes.

Second, helping other countries and peoples is a complicated matter. Sometimes it takes longer than planned, costs more than initially budgeted. With migration, there are problems of integration and security uncertainties. Interventions may end up being an ugly mess that take decades to clean up. If it goes wrong, western countries and international organizations might get blamed for the way they handled matters.

Third and no less important matter is that figuring out if the conditions are ripe for launching massive help and/or intervention. Are we sure, the people are suffering? Is the information accurate? Or could it be the case that some groups are exaggerating things?

All these concerns are understandable. Nevertheless, these concerns existed half a century ago when the UN was established. Nonetheless, it was also understood that our destinies are tied together.

As stated in the preamble of its charter, the United Nations was established: "To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,....."

Building on that the Human Rights Council was established eleven years ago with the objective that "all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that all human rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner."

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea that was established as per resolution 26/24 last year is an outcome of that international system.

It is not just another report from a human rights activist, an opposition party or a neighboring country.

No. This is a mechanism established to ascertain allegations are true and massive violations have been committed.

There is no better mechanism in the world to ascertain the plight of the peoples of Eritrea at this time.

The Commission of Inquiry, after undertaking investigations in accordance with standard procedures and practices concluded that:

"Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity".

This conclusion was reached after a through process of investigation in which the Commission obtained first-hand testimony by conducting 550 confidential interviews with witnesses and 160 written submissions.

That means the voice of the Eritrean people was collected directly by a United Nations organ. It was compiled through the appropriate mechanism and presented for the world to see in 500 pages. Some of those testimonies are heartbreaking and sickening.

Take the torture experiences, for example.

The report revealed that "torture is used as a means to subjugate national service conscripts, instill fear among the population and silence opposition. It also appears that orders to torture a suspect or a conscript are either given by officials or with their consent or acquiescence. Recurrence, coherence, and similarities among testimonies received by the Commission are clear indicators of the existence of a deliberate policy." 

A former interrogator explained:

“Those who guard the prisoners have the permission to torture anyone in the prison but sometimes special people come to interrogate some of them. … The interrogators were also from the military but higher officials.”

A former National Security agent confirmed the flexibility given to interrogators and the fact that they receive instructions to torture:

“[Agents of the National Security Office] can use any kind of information gathering techniques, including torture… We are informed if the person is supposed to be jailed or tortured.” He also explained that an interrogator from the main national security office is called to deal with “serious cases”.

Guards, interrogators, trainers or officers do not seem to be aware that International Law's prohibition of torture or do not receive human rights trainings for interrogation or for the handling of detainees and national service trainees. On the contrary, torture and ill-treatment seem to be condoned, encouraged, and even instructed by their superiors. 

Another witness selected to work as interrogator explained:

“Your job is to torture and abuse them when interrogating them. Some are hung up, it was the first time I could hear such screams and I almost vomited. I had never been trained for interrogation but during these two-three weeks, I was shown.”

A former trainer at Sawa noted:

“The trainers decide about the punishment. There is no manual on what kind of punishment for a certain type act. There are no rules.”

In Eritrea, torturers usually combine a variety of methods in order to inflict intense physical and psychological pain and suffering and achieve their aim. Victims may for instance be tied up for extended periods of time in extreme temperatures or locked in minuscule cells in social and sensory deprivation before or after the interrogation and the beatings.  

A former interrogator in Ala and Mendefera prisons explained:

“Torture includes beating with whips, plastic tubes and electric sticks, standing [under the sun] on a very hot sunny day at noon, tying the hands and feet like the figure of eight, tying the hands and feet backwards (known as “helicopter”), tying to trees, forcing the head down into a container with very cold water, beating the soles of the feet and the palms. In addition, the interrogator is allowed to use whatever fantasy comes to his mind. Most of the time, we were beaten with a stick, electric wires and ropes while the person was handcuffed and seated with a stick under the legs or placed under the sun. There is a room for interrogation made in bricks, if you are afraid that people will shout.”

The most cruel form is the use of rape as a form of torture

Rape perpetrated by detention officials against both men and women detainees were documented by the Commission. A report of detainees being forced to abuse each other sexually was also received. Rape is a particularly egregious form of sexual torture that carries with it the risk of becoming pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV). Victims also suffer shame and stigma that are attached to victims of sexual abuse. The Commission finds that rape is also used as a tool to cause additional fear and intimidation. 

A young woman and her friend arrested and detained on suspicion of attempting to escape were raped repeatedly before being interrogated:

“On the first day I was searched. They made us get naked and put a pen in my anus and my friend’s anus looking for money. Then we were forced to stay in a dark cell for two days. They gave us a military sheet but would not give us our clothes back. We were raped in the same room many times over the three days by two men. The men were always wearing black and had their face covered. After three days we were separated for two days and beaten (alone). I was interrogated. … The two men who did the beatings were different from the men that had raped us. I was beaten so badly I could not walk.”

A middle-aged woman was detained after her two sons escaped from the national service and fled the country. She reported being raped twice by the local administrator while held in detention at a local administration office:

“I was detained in the local administration building for two weeks. I was raped twice by the local administrator. I was too afraid to complain to anyone about that.”

Another woman detained in a secret detention centre reported a similar experience:

“Seven months later, they arrested me and detained me in a private residential house. I do not remember who they were. I stayed there for one month. I was able to move within the house. I was alone. They beat me and raped me. They were wearing civilian clothes. I was trying to tell them to let me go. I wanted to be with my son.”

“In Hadish Measker, there was a unit leader in charge of investigation; he forced other men to have sex with men in the camp. Other young people told me that they had been raped by him. When he wanted to rape people, he took them from us to small underground cells and raped them there. They had dug deep holes, put stones to construct a wall, and covered the top with long wood and put some soil over to sticks. The sand does not trickle through. There are some leaves and bags from flour. You cannot see anything from above.”

“I did not see anyone being sexually assaulted but a lot of ladies were being abused. The prison officials are asking us to have sex with them. They know that I am Muslim. I tell them that it is not ok. They left me alone. This happens especially at night. A woman was ill at the medical facilities inside the prison. The prison staff member raped her. From that place, they transferred her to another clinic. Actually, the person denied that he had sex with her.”

One detainee reported:

“It is called the butchery because there is blood everywhere. I saw one pregnant girl (two-four months) lose her baby from the beating. She was caught trying to go to Sudan. I was in the queue after her to be punished. I could see her getting hit with a thin slock stick (“sordanage” in Arabic) all over her body by four men. She began bleeding. She was taken to the nurse. I do not know what happened there, but I heard they took the baby out.”

As if torture was not enough, there is no respect for life.

The Commission found out that mass killings and mass graves are commonplace in current day Eritrea.

A former fighter who witnessed the executions of more than seven people in his military division two weeks after the ceasefire told the Commission:

“After the war some soldiers were executed to give a lesson to others. They were executed two weeks after the ceasefire which was signed on 11 June 2000. Among others, four were killed for not having fought bravely. Another one was suspected of having shot himself during the war. There were other people. I do not remember their names.

Another person was also suspected of shooting himself in the hand. His friend told him that he was about to be killed and advised him to flee the country and go to Djibouti. He was caught when he was trying to flee the country. When they interrogated him, he said he was afraid for his life.

Both of them were executed – himself and the person who advised him to flee. They called us for a meeting and told us they were going to be executed. After many years, the authorities told their families that they had died during the war; that they were martyrs but later they learned that they had been executed.”

A former military officer told the Commission about the orders they received to execute any deserters and how these were implemented by his battalion:

“In February 1999, we received an order from the PFDJ telling us that the battalion commanders could shoot anyone who escaped. Before 1999, a person who would go home without permission would go to prison. The length of the imprisonment was determined by the commander.

In March 1999, I was in a temporary military camp in Ketay … One person from the national service went to see his family without permission … and they sent two guys to bring him back. The commander called a meeting and said ‘this person left twice and we will apply the death penalty’. This was the first death penalty I saw in my life.

The penalty was imposed the following day … They left the camp walked 10 minutes and I heard the firing of two bullets. After that they took a pick-up truck. A close friend of mine who was a radio operator received an order from the battalion commander to dig a hole and bury the body. Then I asked to see the place. I went there and I saw the grave-there was blood on the ground … Again, in June 1999 the war had started and we were on reserve in the military ... A conscript escaped because he was scared … The next day, he was brought to the unit… and the commander said ‘yesterday you left us. When you left us, where did you go?’ He said ‘I went to the department of logistics’. He received the death penalty… The commander said this order came from the top of the army… The leader of our battalion … could decide the death of his troops, as per the 1999 circular.”

A witness and former military officer informed the Commission about the warning that was issued in 2004 in the southern zoba. He said:

“In 2004, people in the village near the border were being told that if their children were seen trying to cross the border they would be shot. The southern zoba administrator went to all the villages near the border telling parents to stop their children from crossing otherwise they will be killed.

In 2005, the zoba administrator told the military that he had warned everybody. The military then told their soldiers that everyone had been warned so they had to shoot to kill people who tried to cross the border.

At the end of 2005, we had a meeting with our commander. At the meeting, we were told again that we must shoot to kill anyone who tried to cross the border. I asked if there was not anything else we could do instead of shooting the people … When we were sleeping, some officers came and woke me up. They took me to detention.”

These are not stories from some bad Holiwood movie rather testimonies of real-life people who braved to meet and testify infront of the UN commission despite the threats on their and their relatives life by the regime of Eritrea. 

What makes things worse is that they have no alternative recourse to justice if the international community chooses to ignore them.

The justice system in Eritrea is a sham.

The Commission documented several evidences on how farcical the Eritrean justice system is.

A former head of a sub-zonal office of the National Security Office in Asmara told the Commission:

“We could do anything we wanted to do. I could take a person and put him in prison for 10 days without any reason. I did not need to go to a judge at all.”

A fisher, who was shot in the leg during the conflict between Eritrea and Yemen over the Hanish Islands in 1996, recounted:

“My case was heard by a military court. There was no evidence brought against me to prove the charges of smuggling contraband goods and people from Yemen to Eritrea. I argued that I should be paid compensation for the damage I suffered. Despite having no evidence, the judge told me that I did not get more than I deserved, and I should be imprisoned for six months. I was given a suspended sentence of six months.”

A former head of a sub-zonal office of the National Security Office in Asmara told the Commission:

“We could do anything we wanted to do. I could take a person and put him in prison for 10 days without any reason. I did not need to go to a judge at all.”

A former judge who sat on the civil and criminal benches of a regional court in the early 2000s reported:

“In pursuance of Article 35 of the Transitional Criminal Procedure of Eritrea, after the police finish interrogation, the suspects may give their statements before a judge. The court may record any statement or confession made to it at any time before the opening of a preliminary inquiry or trial. This is done to ascertain that suspects voluntarily make such statement or confession.

Most of the suspects confessed under duress and/or torture and since they did not know the difference between courts and the police, judges had to convince them to tell the truth, if they were tortured or not. I used to meet detainees with bruises and trauma. I could see the brutality of the police in the eyes of the suspects. Some came tortured and beaten and others came with a tremendous fear that looked eternal.

When some judges challenged that the police members who employed torture should be convicted, the Minister of Justice instructed in writing that the Police Force should be immune from prosecution for their acts. This instruction was given to the Prosecutor’s Office.”

A former spokesperson of a zonal administrator in the 2000s noted:

“I have seen people taken to court for disputes such as domestic violence cases and when they fight. There are hearings for some civil disputes, but there are also other disputes, for instance when someone bribes a government’s employee. The latter goes to a military court. If a person is arrested for his political activities, they never appear before a court. The land disputes are the government’s domain. But petty crimes and other things may go to court.”

Similarly, in a criminal matter, the son of a person who died in detention after being arrested for attempting to flee the country reported to the Commission that he petitioned the High Court in Asmara to shed light on the circumstances of his father’s death. In the words of the witness, though:

“The judges tried to gather information but after three or four days they gave me an answer: ‘We cannot do this because the case connects with the Government. The file is closed,’ they said. Such a story is a normal scenario in our country.”

A victim reported:

“I was taken to various prisons. Each time, the officer who received me had a file on me. From the file, he could decide the punishment. He is the judge and he decides my fate. Sometimes they would receive a phone call and they would punish me based on what they were told. They did not tell me what I had done.”

There are dozens more similar stories in the 500 pages report.

As we said above, these are not stories from some bad Hollywood movie or an thriller fiction book rather testimonies of real-life peoples who braved to meet and testify in front of the UN commission.

The 550 witnesses who provided the interviews and 160 written submissions have no alternative recourse to justice if the international community chooses to ignore them.

When they decided to provide evidences to a United Nations' commission, they put their faith in the charter that declares the UN's objective is "to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."

Now, it is time for the world to listen to the voices of these people and make sure the promises of justice and human rights are kept in Eritrea.


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