Call to Democratise
Eleven Members of Parliament and Eritrean government officials were illegally arrested in Asmara, Eritrea on 18th and 19th September 2001 in violation of Eritrean laws and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In May 2001, the detainees, in an effort to bring about an open dialogue that was designed to usher in democracy and constitutional governance, wrote an open letter which criticised government policies. Their letter called upon all People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) members in particular and Eritrean people in general to express their opinion through legal and democratic means and to give their support to the goals and principles they considered just. The government subsequently announced that the fifteen individuals were acting illegally and were posing a threat to national security.
The authors of this booklet, who are Eritreans with European citizenships, believe that the prisoners have been held illegally and/or without internationally required due process of law. First and foremost, they intend to establish the fate and whereabouts of the prisoners whose disappearance has placed them outside the protection of the law. Subsequently they wish to pursue this case, through legal means, until the incarceration is proven illegal and in violation of international human rights.
Moreover, the authors are aware of UN Resolution 47/133 of 18 Dec 1992, on Declaration of the Protection on all Persons from Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance, which, if summarily brought into play, could engender the fate and whereabouts of the prisoners. Therefore, they are appealing to the UN to take this case into consideration.
Brief Background Information
Eritrea and its Revolution: The boundaries of modern Eritrea and the entire region were established during the colonialist epoch of Scramble for Africa. The Italians ruled Eritrea for more than fifty years until the British took over in 1941. Landlocked Ethiopia claimed Eritrea and that very claim triggered a war that cost Eritreans unimaginable loss of life and resources.
After the British forces defeated the Italian army in Eritrea in 1941, Eritrea was placed under British military administration until the Allied forces could determine its fate. As the Allies failed to come up with a solution, the UN, through US’s domineering intervention, awarded Eritrea to Ethiopia via a federal agreement. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia dissolved the Eritrean parliament and forcibly annexed the country, sparking the Eritrean fight for independence.
The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) initiated military operations in 1961 and intensified its activities in response to the dissolution of the federation in 1962. By 1967 the ELF had gained considerable support among students and peasants, particularly in Eritrea low lands. Internal disputes over strategy and tactics, however, eventually led to the ELF's fragmentation and the founding in 1970 of another group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which eventually led the struggle until the downfall of the Ethiopian regime. Having defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea, EPLF troops took control of the country.
The Euphoria and Dangers of Post-Revolution Era
In May 1991, the EPLF established the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) to administer Eritrean affairs until a referendum was held on independence and a permanent government established. EPLF’s leader Isaias Afwerki became the head of the PGE, and the EPLF Central Committee served as its legislative body.
In April, 1993, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia
in a UN-monitored referendum. Although the liberation war had a devastating effect on Eritrea - around 70,000 Eritreans lost their lives; tens of thousands of children were orphaned; and over 50,000 people who were left handicapped - there was a great optimism with Eritreans pulling together to rebuild the country.
A few years after independence, instead of moving from the revolutionary to the reformist position, the country started a debilitating retreat towards the past. The government in Asmara appeared arrogant, overly assertive, and uncooperative. It soon began to squander the goodwill of its citizens who lived in and out of the country and that of the International Community.
In 1997 the Eritrean Constitution was ratified, but the government decided to shelve it as its implementation was apparently going to jeopardise the positions of the authorities. Moreover, the government began to take its draconian measures against those who criticised its policies, presented ‘unsolicited’ proposals and systematically kept the Diaspora from returning home, which, consequently, arrested the country’s development.
In 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which killed over 100,000 soldiers from both countries, left Eritrea with significant economic and social strain, including massive population displacement, reduced economic development, and one of Africa's more severe landmine problems. The war lasted for two ruinous years. Many felt the war was carelessly ignited, carelessly handled, and carelessly brought to a conclusion.
On 18 June 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed to a complete ceasefire. Later, on 12 December 2000 the two governments signed the peace agreement. And soon after the agreement was signed, Eritreans began to reflect on what went wrong. Much to their surprise, the true colours of the Eritrean leadership began to show as the government attempted to unload its shortcomings on others, including those who fought for decades to liberate Eritrea from Ethiopia.
The first open criticism of the government’s handling of the war and the economy came from different Eritrean intellectuals and groups. On October 4, 2000 a group of dissidents known as the G-13 sent a letter to the President, criticising the government for its ‘one-man-rule’. The letter went on to question the causes of the 1998 tragic war, repeating that because of it there was a ‘need for critical review of the post-independence developments in Eritrea’. In addition to the suffering and loss of property caused by the war, the G-13 stated that the war had also raised grave questions about the conduct of Eritrean affairs both domestic and foreign, and about the nature of our leadership in the post-independence period.
In May 2001, a new group of dissidents took shape as the G-15, which was composed of influential veteran fighters, turned government officials like Mahmud Sheriffo and Mesfin Hagos who helped found the EPLF. Their open letter accused the President of ‘conducting himself in an illegal and unconstitutional manner’. This group of 15 veterans and senior Party officials went on to charge President Afwerki with governing illegally.
Finally, on 18/19 Sep 2001, while the international community busied itself with the events of September 11’s twin-tower terrorist act, the president instructed his security agents to arrest eleven of the 15 signatories of the open letter in pre-dawn raids. Three of them were abroad at the time and one later recanted. Simultaneous with their round-up, all eight privately-owned newspapers were also shut down. Since the arrest, the detainees have been held incommunicado, without access to their families, lawyers or international humanitarian organizations, and their whereabouts is unknown.
Who are the Members of the so-called G-15 Group?
Petros Solomon (jailed): Petros joined the liberation front in 1972. He was a close colleague of Isaias Afwerki, former rebel leader, now president of the State of Eritrea. From 1977 until the end of the Eritrean War of Independence (1991), he served as the head of military intelligence for the EPLF. Since independence he served in various cabinet positions; his last post was as Minister of Fisheries.
Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo (jailed): Sheriffo joined the Eritrean struggle in 1966. In 1970, he and his colleagues founded the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). In 1977 he was elected to become a member of the Political Bureau of the Front. After the Front’s second congress of 1987 he served in the capacity of Head of the Department of Public Administration. He also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs before his last position as Minister of Local Government. During this time he was also appointed Chairman of the Committee to prepare the draft laws concerning the formation of Political Parties, which the president eventually blocked.
Haile Woldense (jailed): In 1964, Haile was a militant during the student movement before he joined the Eritrean struggle in 1966. In1973 he was captured by Ethiopian soldiers and jailed in Asmara, only to be rescued by his fellow fighters in 1975. Two years later he became a member of EPLF’s Politburo. After Independence he became the Minister of Finance and Development and served in that capacity until the beginning of Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998. He was then shuffled in the Cabinet to the Minister of Foreign Affairs position.
Mesfin Hagos (in exile): Mesfin became a liberation fighter in 1967. He, alongside the current president, was a founding member of the EPLF in 1970. After Independence he was appointed to become Eritrea’s first Minister of Defence. In 1995 he stepped down from his post and became the Regional Administrator of the Southern Region. During the arrest of the G-15 group Mesfin was abroad for medical reasons. He is now a leader of an opposition party called Eritrean Democratic Party, which is based outside Eritrea.
Hamid Himid (jailed): Hamid Himid was a well-liked and trendy politician who held various government posts since Eritrean independence. He was member of the EPLF Central committee during its Second Congress and Central Council (Executive Office) of PFDJ from 1994 to 2001, member of the National Assembly, head of the Middle East Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, administrator of the Senhit Province, ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and head of the Middle East and North Africa Department and of the Political Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ogbe Abraha (jailed): In 1972, Ogbe joined the EPLF when he was a college student in Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. In 1977, he became member of the Politburo. cal Bureau of the Front and assumed the post of head of logistics, along side his position as commander of a military front in 1978-1984. Since independence, he held the following positions: member of the Central Council of PFDJ, member of the National Council, Secretary and then Minister of Trade and Industry, Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Chief of Logistics, Administration and Health in the Ministry of Defence, Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defence Forces. Ogbe suffers from a serious case of Asthma.
Saleh Idris Kekya (jailed): Saleh joined EPLF in 1976. At first he served as military trainer and political commissioner. And since independence, held the following positions: member of the Central Council of PFDJ, member of the National Assembly, Director of the Office of the President, Ambassador to Sudan, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Transport and Communication.
Estifanos Seyoum (jailed): Estifanos is an economics graduate from Addis Ababa University and with a masters degree from Wisconsin University. He joined the EPLF in 1975. Before independence he served the front by heading the finance department. Since independence, he held the following positions: member of the Central Council of PFDJ, member of the National Assembly, Secretary of Finance, Head of Finance in the Eritrean Defence Forces as Brigadier General and Director-General of Inland Revenue.
Berhane Ghebrezgabiher (jailed): Former Addis University student, Berhane joined the EPLF in 1972. After a few years he became one of the top EPLF Political Cadres. In 1977 he was elected to join EPLF’s Politburo and again in 1987 he was elected to become a member of the Central Council of the Front. Since independence for Eritrea, held the following positions: member of the Central Council of PFDJ, member of the National Assembly, Secretary of Industry, Administrator of Hamasien Province, Commander of the Ground Forces in the Eritrean Defence Forces as Major General, and Commander of the reserve army.
Astier Fesehazion (jailed): She joined Eritrean People's Liberation Front in 1974. During the revolutionary years she served the front as a political commissioner and a mentor to thousands of newly recruits. Since independence, she held the following positions: member of the Central Council of PFDJ, member of the National Assembly, Head of Social Affairs in the Ministry of Social Welfare and Head of Personnel in the Anseba Zone.
Mohammed Berhan Blata (in exile): Unlike the rest of the group Mohammed was a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). In the 60s he was one of the top leaders of the five military zones of the ELF. After independence he returned to Eritrea from abroad and was given a post in the government. He was consecutively the mayor of Mendeferra, Adi Kayih and Dekemhare, from 1992 to 2001. After signing the Open Letter with the rest of the G-15 Mohammed later recanted. He now lives in exile.
Germano Nati (jailed): Germano joined EPLF in 1977 and, since independence, held the following positions: member of the Central Council and Executive Committee of PFDJ, member of the National Assembly, Administrator of the Gash-Setit Province and Head of Social Affairs in the Southern Red Sea Region.
Beraki Gebreselassie (jailed): Beraki, who joined the Front in 1971, is renowned for his contributions in the field of Education in the battlefields of Eritrea. After Independence Beraki served as Minister of Education and later as Minister of Information & Culture.. Before his incarceration, he served as Eritrean Ambassador
to Germany. (2000-2001).
Adhanom Ghebremariam (in exile): Adhanom, former student at Addis University, joined the EPLF in 1971. Most of his revolutionary career was in the military wing of the front. He was elected to the EPLF Central Committee at its Second Congress in 1987. He progressed through the military ranks as a Commissioner of company, battalion, brigade and division levels. Before independence he was moved to head the trade department of the EPLF. He held various posts in post-independence Eritrea: Regional Administrator of Seraye, Attorney General of the State of Eritrea, Ambassador to Sweden and later Ambassador to Nigeria.
Haile Menkerios (in exile): Haile, Harvard graduate, was once a leader of Eritrean Students of North America. He later returned to Eritrea to join EPLF in the early 1973, where he eventually became a member of the EPLF Politburo. From 1991 to 2000, Haile represented the Eritrean Government in various capacities including as Ambassador to Ethiopia and the Organisation of African Unity, Special Envoy to Somalia and also the Great Lakes region, and as Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
The G-15’s Open Letter
The open letter to the president was the culmination of the repeated requests the signatories of the letter made to hold regular meeting of the Central Council and the National Council which were well overdue. They believed the best way to resolve problems was through meetings and democratic dialogue. Accordingly, they requested that the president, as chairman of both the Central and the National Council, convene meetings. The president dismissed the requests of the group who happened to be responsible members of both bodies. He simply failed to respond positively to their requests. After a flurry of exchanges of letters they decided to write the open letter to all members of the government party members (PFDJ).
This letter was a call for correction, a call for peaceful and democratic dialogue, a call for strengthening and consolidation, a call for unity, a call for the rule of law and for justice, through peaceful and legal ways and means. Nonetheless, the president’s final reply to his top aides was negative. He wrote: ‘I choose to be forbearing and I will patiently avoid any invitation to arguments. But if you continue to provoke me and choose to escalate the problems by exaggerating non-existent issues, it is your choice’. A party meeting was never convened and ultimately he took a draconian measure against his topmost comrades by locking them up unceremoniously.
Basically, the letter of the members of the ruling party urged for democratisation. They had asked the non-elected President Issayas Afwerki to convene an overdue meeting in the ruling PDFJ party's Central and National Councils with an aim of starting a democratic transition.
According to the government, the G-15’s open letter was part of a plot to establish political cells in and out of government throughout Eritrea, coordinating their activities with established regional countries and finally to topple the government.
A Challenge to the Unlawful Arrest
In November 2001, Mr Mussie Ephrem, an Eritrean activist from Sweden, through the help of a Dutch human rights lawyer, Prof Liesbeth Zegveld, launched a legal challenge against the State of Eritrea regarding these massive human rights violations in the newly established African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. After two and a half years the case came to an end. At the 34th Ordinary Session of the African Commission which was held from 6th to 20th November 2003, in Banjul, The Gambia, the Commission established that the Eritrean government to be in violation of the African Charter on four accounts: namely, Articles 2, 6, 7(1) and 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and it urged the State of Eritrea to order the immediate release of the 11 detainees.
On 22/3/2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the AU ruling by stating that the allegation that the 11 persons were detained for 'expressing their views' was factually unfounded. The letter stated that the action the prisoners took was against the national security of the country. In spite of the fact that the prisoners were not formally charged and never had a day in court in Sep 2001, the letter stated that Eritrean Government did not throw away or stash the matter indefinitely. According to the letter, the delay in bringing the detained persons to justice was simply a matter of routine procedure.
We are trying to imagine what, first and foremost, the prisoners themselves have had to endure during this ordeal. Secondly, we do take on board what the families of the imprisoned have endured, and little talks we 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. In short, corrupt governments will prevail so long as there is no active campaign, ever-present media reporting to an educated and politically active public supported by a judicial system with considerable authority.
Basically, with nation upon nation embroiled in civil war, with rampant disease and malnutrition, failed and pillaged agrarian economies and the preoccupation with the AIDS epidemic, the incarcerated and their families are receiving virtually no attention. We do not want the world to forget those who literally sacrificed everything – their youths, careers and ultimately their lives, in their struggle against injustice, and triumphed, to be victimised by their own achievements.
In the continent of Africa and elsewhere we have repeatedly seen successful democratic revolutions leading to failed political experiments where the revolutionary government is scarcely distinguishable from the original dictatorship. Eritrea’s case is indeed a case in point. This, of course, is the greatest danger for the people of Eritrea and Africa in general.
We do not believe the Eritrean judicial system can reliably address the plight of the prisoners. On the other hand, we do believe the situation requires outside judicial intervention because Western lawyers have the means to help. Again, we believe that we can amass a contingent of a few individuals to not only bring an international judicial claim, but to prosecute the claim successfully and then bring the matter to international authorities for enforcement. Yes, the process is long but not undoable. Provided that we manage to garner enough support, the legal challenge we are launching to prompt proper hearings that will help us determine 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.