Eritrea's 20th Anniversary - Haunted By Perceptions or Reality?
By Laura Angela Bagnetto in Addis Ababa, 23 May 2013
Eritrea celebrates its 20th anniversary of independence on Friday with state-run media describing festivities across the country. But Amnesty International has decried the alleged human rights abuses committed by the one-party government run by President Isaias Afewerki, asserting that some 10,000 people are being held in jails.
"There has been a concerted disinformation campaign from so many quarters which are [doing] a cut and paste activity," Girma Asmeron, the Eritrean Ambassador to the African Union, told RFI.
Calling the allegations on par with the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Asmeron says that the prisoner story "has been spun so many times, as though perceptions become reality".
Asmeron says that the Eritrean people are united, no matter what human rights campaigners say. He says he took up the liberation struggle after finishing his studies in the US, as Eritreans from all walks of life came together to fight for independence, from nomads to intellectuals, students and the working class.
"You will not find in Eritrea any family which has not lost somebody-a cousin, an aunt, a brother, a friend," he says, on the sidelines of the AU summit in Addis Ababa.
The ambassador maintains that there is no dissent, even in the Eritrean army, even though reports surfaced in January that soldiers briefly took over the Ministry of Information in Asmara.
"Those weren't army officers," he says. "In any society, even in any family, there is a black sheep," he laughs. "There were about two to three officers with their own grievances-it was a distortion, a deliberate distortion."
Eritrea is considered by some as one of the most isolated and authoritarian regimes, which led commentators to wonder how the news leaked out. Reporters Without Borders has classified Eritrea as the lowest-ranked country-at 179th-for press freedom in the world.
And while not the lowest ranked by the Transparency International on its 2012 corruption index, where it is placed between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea Conakry at number 150th, it has dropped lower since 2011.
Eritrea's active diaspora has been the bane of the Afewerki government, using social media, publishing stories online and using other means to keep the spotlight on the alleged abuses. Asmeron says otherwise, claiming that 95 per cent of the diaspora is pro-government.
"When people say there is a difference of opinion in the diaspora, I can challenge them," says Asmeron. He says the sheer numbers of Eritreans living abroad who participate in supporting the government are a lot larger than what he alleges are the few dissidents who turn out for meetings.
"They come out in numbers, and to me, that is democracy, democracy is a number. [It shows] which side you are on," he says.
But the diaspora is also forced to pay tax to the Eritrean government, a move the United Nations has condemned.
As for the prisoners, Asmeron remains steadfast in his condemnation of the Amnesty International report.
"Amnesty International has never been to Eritrea," he says. "There never has and there will never be 10,000 prisoners ... I don't want to dignify it with an answer because you did ask me a question ... their agenda is regime change. Those people who have never been to Eritrea are the ones who are saying it, it's a political agenda."
When contacted by RFI, Amnesty's London headquarters responded to Asmeron's assertions: "Amnesty International has not been able to visit Eritrea for more than a decade because the organisation's staff have consistently been denied visas by the authorities. However, this repeated denial of access does not mean Amnesty International cannot conduct valid human rights research on Eritrea."
The rights group says that researchers have spoken with Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in more than 10 countries, gathering information and accounts that have been cross-referenced and verified. It stands by its assertion of 10,000 political prisoners but believes that the numbers are likely to be higher.
As Eritrea celebrates its 20th independence day anniversary, Asmeron says the day is important "because this is a day where we express our commitment for the vision we fought for ... in terms of bringing a prosperous, democratic and free Eritrea". Meanwhile, Amnesty has called for the government to provide information on those detained as well as inform family members of their relatives' whereabouts.