Thoughts on the Plight of Eritrean Political Prisoners

Thoughts on the Plight of Eritrean Political Prisoners

A Call to Western Lawyers 

Dawit Mesfin

London 17 Nov 2016


I am trying to imagine what the families of the unjustly-imprisoned former government officials have endured, and the talks I have held with them reflect but a fraction of the gnawing pain they live with.  The lingering question at the heart of the situation remains the same today as for so many years: what can be done when corrupt governments across Africa use treason charges to silence challenges and opposition to their rule?  Sadly, the only lasting answer is structural. Corrupt governments will prevail so long as there is no watchful media reporting to an educated and politically active public supported by a judicial system with authority on a par with the executive branch.

How often on the continent of Africa and elsewhere have we seen successful democratic revolutions lead to failed political experiments where the revolutionary government is scarcely distinguishable from the original dictatorship?  The problem is so common, and so tragic, that it scarcely receives mention anymore.  This is the greatest danger for the people of Eritrea in particular and Africa in general.  If the problem is viewed as intractable, the western world is ever more likely to turn its back on Africa completely.  With nation upon nation embroiled in civil war, with rampant disease and malnutrition, failed and pillaged agrarian economies and the preoccupation with the AIDS and the Ebola epidemic, political prisoners across the continent – and their families - receive virtually no attention.

Western lawyers have the means to help.  I know this is a weighty statement, but I also understand that without a concerted effort, lawyers alone can do very little.  It is obvious no one believes the Eritrean judicial system itself can reliably address this problem.  While I believe the situation requires outside judicial intervention, mobilising/activating? this intervention takes a full-time effort.  What’s more, I do not believe the western media alone can fix a situation that requires outside judicial intervention.  For this reason, I believe campaigners must bring together a contingent of individuals to not only mount an international judicial claim, but to prosecute that claim successfully and bring the matter to international authorities for enforcement.  In other words, until there have been hearings and a determination that the prisoners have been imprisoned on false charges and held without due process in violation of international law, there can be no international resolution calling for their release.  In other words, their freedom will only be won through a process of successive victories. It has been proven that they have been held illegally and/or without internationally required due process of law; their incarceration must then be deemed illegal and in violation of international human rights; the international court and the UN must thereafter be enlisted to demand an immediate end to the illegal internment, and it will then be necessary to pressure the Eritrean government to release them in accordance with the official resolution calling for that release.  In the later stages of this process, influence with the western media may be an invaluable tool.  But I think media influence will only make a difference after the judicial battle has been won.  This is true largely because the western media will give far greater attention to a judicial finding of false imprisonment than it will to a mere charge or claim of false imprisonment.

 I realise that we have to call upon foreign nationals to help us prepare for such a legal battle. Given what Eritrea’s long and devastating war has done to the country, and given the tensions with its enemies in Ethiopia, I understand that it is difficult to amass the support necessary to mount a legal challenge to their incarceration.  But is there any other way to win their freedom?

We Eritreans are losing heart.  At times we do feel that the western world’s claim to have the people and the resources to right the wrongs of other nations is only a myth it perpetuates around the world. But we also know that although a solution exists, it  will require the people of our nation to stand and work together.  The people closest to this injustice will need to band together to resolve it.  For now, international lawyers can only point the way.  I personally feel the time will come soon and Eritreans should be ready for the fight; I hope human rights lawyers will ponder over the issue along with the families of the victims with the intention of doing more.  In the meantime, I bear in mind that each day that passes with the prisoners still in prison is a great loss to their families.

I am sure Eritrean campaigners and their friends understand the importance of this fight, and the very real loss of life and liberty involved.  Perhaps this request is a weighty one, calling for much thought and explanation.  I am aware of the fact that there is no single attorney with the experience of marshalling international public awareness and political pressure that is likely to be needed, and who also has the knowledge of international law and treaties necessary to win the prisoners’ release.  It is not enough to obtain a ruling that the prisoners have been denied due process of law - we need an enforceable decree that requires the government of Eritrea to identify the charges against its political prisoners and either bring them to trial or release them.  The power of international human rights treaties cannot be ignored, but campaigners need enforceable decrees backed by international muscle - human rights or multinational advisory panels like the African Union do not have the enforcement power needed.   

Obviously, the question of leverage against the current government is one of the main sticking points in this case.  As we have seen with the ruling of the African Union, action doesn't necessarily follow from the mere recognition of wrongdoing and injustice.  By the same token, we should not assume that major international public attention and pressure can be brought to bear against Eritrean officials.  The situation in Eritrea is extreme, and it is hardly leading news.

One of the major goals, for example, would be to have Eritrea move these prisoners from an undisclosed location to a known facility where they could be visited by counsel and their families.  Again, we are hopeful that there exist many small steps toward progress. 

Eritrean campaigners continue to work towards the objective of forcing the government to (1) charge the prisoners with a crime and arrange for their trial or set them free; and (2) offer proof that the prisoners are not only alive, but being cared for according to Geneva/Hague convention standards (if deemed 'prisoners of war') and/or according to the laws of Eritrea.

International Media

As for international attention and media coverage, it is worth noting that the media is primarily interested in current events that involve current conflict. Any AU ruling would not interest the media unless accompanied by a renewed dispute that offers some prospect of success. 

Additionally, the media takes stock of the relative standing of a nation before covering a story.  If the prisoners in Eritrea were current political prisoners in North Korea, there would be little difficulty gaining the interest of the media.  Eritrea, by contrast, is considered a stable government on an often unstable continent.  It has strategic value because of its access to the Red Sea, and its ‘dummy’ national assembly is comprised of women and men alike.  For all of the efforts to bring attention to the plight of Africa, Eritrea has not been the subject of discussion, and the major world powers, whether nations like the US or institutions such as the EU,   would resist any pressure on the Eritrean government.

One can sense that Eritreans possess the instinct to fight back.  Families of the victims do not want to roll over and allow gross injustice to prevail.  But on the other hand, for all of the effort, time and money, it seems that we cannot justify this endeavour if it does not culminate with families reuniting with their loved ones. At least we should try to fight back through the international law courts/with the weapon of jurisprudence. .

Eritreans should think about who is best situated to help.  What are the other prisoner's families willing to do? What is a reasonable goal?  At times, it seems to us that any goal which stops short of determining that the prisoners are alive and able to receive visitors is too modest.  If families and diplomats are allowed access to the prisoners, then we believe there will be movement towards a resolution. 

We know getting media attention alone is not the answer.  It certainly helps.  But timing is everything.  It would be wise to use the media even before campaigners are in a position to gain concessions from the government.