Eritrea has again come under US attack for its disregard of press freedom. In a statement Saturday, marking World Press Freedom Day, President Obama denounced the Eritrean government as a major violator of press freedom in Africa.
Eritrea is the only African nation without private media and keeps torturing and imprisoning journalists without legal basis. At least three journalists are known to have been tortured to death while in detention for years without trial.
The US government has also formally labeled Eritrea the worst abuser of religious freedom in Africa. This means the country, under President Isayas Afewerki, gets to keep its notorious status as a member of “Countries of Particular Concern”. This CPC designation gives Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a host of options including further sanctions as a measure to end repression.
A great many of the estimated 100-thousand prisoners in the country are held because of their faith. One of them is the 81 year-old ordained Head of the Eritrean Coptic Church, Patriarch Antonios. Like thousands of other victims, he is kept in undisclosed prison cell.
Detained journalists, believers and other dissidents are said to be routinely subjected to torture and intimidation to force them to recant their political or religious beliefs. The government accuses them of being traitors and tools of Western interests aimed at “subverting the system”. None have been given the chance to defend themselves before a court of law.
While the authorities waste their time and energy in predictable disinformation and mundane blame-games at the cost of the country’s future, the free world continues to castigate the regime as inept and paranoid. It has to be stated a zillion times that violation of human and democratic rights and deprivation of the Eritrean people of their hard-earned constitution, have nothing to do with what Mr. America, Mr. Ethiopia or Mr. Djibouti says or does. These are sacred principles that have to be implemented unconditionally.
While the government’s behavior is being denounced globally, there are still no signs that it is about to engage in self-evaluation and begin to overhaul its ruthless and inhuman domestic laws and policies. The dreaded security police continue to use most gruesome methods of torture as have been described by fleeing refugees interviewed by Amnesty International and other human rights advocates outside the country. The most commonly used method is the tying up of the limbs with a rope – known as “THE HELICOPTER”.
“THE HELICOPTER”: the victim is tied with a rope by hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped or upper garments. This is a punishment allocated for a particular number of days - the maximum reported being 55 days in the Dahlak Kebir island prison. The prisoner is tied in this position 24 hours a day, except for two or three short breaks.
“OTTO” (Italian for eight): the victim is tied with hands behind the back and left face down on the ground, but without the legs tied.
“JESUS CHRIST”: the victim is stripped to the waist, wrists tied, and standing on a block with hands tied to a tree branch: the block is removed, leaving the victim suspended with the feet just off the ground in a crucifix-like posture. Beatings are inflicted on the bare back. This is said to be an extremely severe torture. This method was first reported from Adi Abeto prison.
“FERRO” (Italian iron): The wrists are bound behind the back with metal handcuffs while the victim lies on the bound face down and is beaten with sticks or whipped with an electric wire on the back and buttocks.
“TORCH” or “NUMBR EIGHT”: inside a special torture room, the victim is tied up by wrists behind the back and with the feet bound, a stick is placed under the knees and supported on a framework on both sides horizontally, and the body is turned upside down with the feet exposed. The soles of the feet are beaten with sticks or whipped.
ELECTRIC SHOCKS AND SEXUAL TORTURE: In addition to electric shocks during interrogations, a coca-cola bottle filled with water is tied to the testicles.
RAPE AND SEXUAL SLAVERY: Amnesty International and other human rights bodies have reported sexual violence against female conscripts. Some of the new female conscripts were selected by commanders for sex under duress to serve as sex slaves. They were said to be threatened with heavy military duties or being denied home leave.
The following is part of a testimony recorded by Amnesty International of a former national service conscript who was tortured in Eritrean prison for his political views:
“I was beaten on the first day in detention. Beating is a normal thing. I was kicked on any part of my body. Then I was tied for three days in the “OTTO” method. My feet were tied, and my hands were tied separately behind my back, and I was left outside in this position for three days continuously, lying on my front, except for short periods for two-meal times and toilet breaks each day…
“I saw others tied too, some very tightly. I saw one whose veins in his arms burst and blood flowed out. They just left him there and forgot about him. When the veins burst, they took him away and we didn’t know what happened to him. Sometimes the veins swelled up because of the sun, and burst.
Tens of thousands of other refugees have countless horror stories to tell. An end to mass torture, disappearance and imprisonment without trial has to be enforced right away. US pressure, such as today’s Obama statement is helpful. But it is up to the Eritrean people to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve freedom and democracy.
Sources: News Services, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, US Department Annual Report