Interview with Dan Connel: Political prisoners

"It is essential emphasize how important it is for political prisoners to be released"

Dan Connell - leading U.S. expert on Eritrea; Senior Lecturer in journalism and African politics at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on Eritrea and the new country's role in the Horn of Africa.  Connell is the author of numerous books, including Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners (2004).


If you had to describe Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki with five adjectives that summarize his personal character most succinctly, what would they be?

D.C. : Shrewd, controlling, increasingly self-referential, volatile and vindictive

What is the greatest misconception people have about Eritrea and about President Afewerki?

D.C.: That he is out of control and acting irrationally. He acts within a set of convictions and experiences that are consistent over time, even if destructive and self-defeating. It is important to understand this framework.

How much credence do you attach to recent  reports out of Eritrea that some members of the G-15 opposition group  as well as several of  the journalists arrested in September 2001 are alive, including Dawit Isaak? In other words, how would you rate their chances of survival as of today? [Note: The so-called "G-15" are former members of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice who in 2001 openly criticized President Afewerki's policies as "illegal and unconstitutional".  Eleven members of this groups were jailed and several have died as a result of their imprisonment)

D.C.:  I don’t know if they are alive or dead or, if alive, what condition they’re in. I would say this question has not been resolved to any degree, so we should consider all possibilities. I am skeptical of the sensational published reports I’ve seen over the years and have yet to see one that is ironclad and backed up by evidence. This is not to say they are not true, just that nothing has been proved and I remain unsure. I have heard from fairly reliable sources that Petros Solomon’s wife Astier is in an Asmara jail and is alive but she’s the only one I have confidence about.

What is in your mind the best and most important thing the E.U. and Sweden can do to try to win Dawit Isaak's freedom? What is the worst thing they can do to try to win his release?

D.C.: I frankly doubt they will release anyone as whoever gets out will be able to tell the story of prison conditions and who else is in them today.... I also worry that focusing on a single political prisoner sets up a situation where the character and practice of the regime is no longer the issue. At this point, with Isaias’s grip on power more tenuous than it has been in decades, it is important to reach out (quietly) to the next tier of leaders to emphasize how important it is for political prisoners to be released if Eritrea’s future relations with the international community are to improve. This is also important to convey in the public sphere as a general principle, so that potential opposition to Isaias whom we don't know about—for example, second-tier officers in the EDF (Eritrean Defense Force) —get the message. The worst thing to do would be to allow the regime and its inner circle to think the world has forgotten about them.

There have been longstanding proposals to engage a prominent Special Envoy to negotiate directly with President Afwerki.  Do you have any suggestions as to who would be a suitable candidate to take on such a task?

D.C.: Isaias doesn't appear to listen to anyone, but those around him do. An African or Middle Eastern envoy would likely have more influence on them and perhaps even the president himself. The countries with the most leverage now are South Africa, Egypt and Qatar, so an envoy from one of them would be most likely to get an audience. A European envoy is unlikely to get far and an American would not get a visa.

Eritrea's Foreign Minister  Osman Saleh  met with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, in connection with a Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels last month. How do you assess the importance of this meeting?

D.C.: Right now, this still looks rather tenuous. If the Swedish government is serious about negotiations to secure Dawit's release, a key first step from the Eritrean side would be granting access to an independent observer to establish that he is alive and, if so, what is the condition of his health. This could be a diplomat, a private citizen, a representative of the United Nations, the ICRC—anyone who can be truly said to be an independent and reliable observer.

Susanne Berger

September 6, 2013

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