Human rights decline in Eritrea: 20 more jailed since July

Human rights decline in Eritrea: 20 more jailed since July
Although the human rights situation in Eritrea has been grave for some years, conditions worsened as 20 more of Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested during the past three months. The group includes men and women, ranging in age from 16 to 75.
Also see the International Religious Freedom Report 2008 regarding Eritrea

Jehovah’s Witnesses—Eritrea Country Profile
October 2008

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Six years after the government of Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the four government-sanctioned faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to face stiff opposition. Their worship, even in private homes, is considered to be outside the recognized religious institutions, making the Witnesses subject to arrest, torture, and severe pressure to deny their faith.

On Tuesday, July 8, 2008, the authorities began conducting raids on the local residences of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In what is the most open attempt in recent history to shut down a minority religion in Eritrea, the police systematically arrested 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses during July, August and September. Long-time members of the congregations, men in their 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s, were subsequently rounded up in their homes or places of work. In most cases these are the breadwinners for their families. Some of those arrested are presently confirmed to be imprisoned, but the whereabouts of others have not been disclosed.

As of October 2008, there are a total of 38 Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison in Eritrea. (See attached list.) False hopes of progress were raised in May, and again in July, when three prisoners were released. The events since then prove that such hope was premature.

Some were arrested while attending Christian meetings, others while publicly sharing their faith, and still others for their conscientious objection to military service. Eight imprisoned Witnesses are between 50 and 60 years old, and 11 others are 60 years of age or older.

Tekle Tesfai, an Eritrean by birth but a citizen of the Netherlands, was arrested and imprisoned on May 27, 2005. He is 75 years old. He is emaciated from malnutrition, and his health is poor. Tesfai’s relatives are working through the Dutch Embassy to try to have him released. Jailed members of Christian religions that have been decreed illegal are required to renounce their faith before they will be released.

Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide remain politically neutral. In Eritrea, those who will not serve in the military for religious reasons are jailed in poor conditions. This is the situation of 12 of the Witnesses who are imprisoned. Three of these conscientious objectors have been in prison for over 14 years, since 1994. Their “crime” is taking literally the Biblical directive not to “learn war anymore.” — Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3.

Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot receive more than an 8th-grade education in Eritrea. When students register for high school in 9th grade, they are also required to register for national military service. Upon completing the 11th grade, high school students are obliged to go to Sawa military camp to complete their 12th-grade education. The government recently established a school in Sawa, under military supervision, so that students can finish the 12th grade while they get military training. While there, the students remain separated from their families for the year. Furthermore, parents are expected to hand over to authorities any child who has registered for high school but is unable to complete his education through the 11th grade. If parents do not hand over a child to the authorities or refuse to do so, they are subject to detention or a fine of 50,000 nakfa (US$3,333) per child. Recently the authorities issued a decree that any male student who is older than 18 years old must leave his studies and report to Assab military camp. Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not register for a high school education in order not to compromise their religiously motivated stand to refrain from participation in military training or service.

For many years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have attempted to help their Eritrean brothers through visits and appeals to officials at the U.S. Department of State, European foreign ministries, and Eritrean embassies, particularly in Germany, Italy, and the United States. They have also made repeated attempts to send a delegation of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Asmara, without success to date.

Some have described the “siege-like” military atmosphere that Eritrea has experienced since 1993 and believe that the nonparticipation in the 1993 national independence referendum and the issue of military service are the two principal reasons for the government’s stance toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses are known internationally for being politically neutral and for their conscientious objection to military service. Their conviction consistently remains that love of neighbor is a core tenet of true Christianity.— Matthew 22:37-39; John 13:34, 35; 15:19.

Abuses of religious freedom

In 1994, Eritrea’s president decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses had revoked their citizenship by not participating in the national referendum and in military service. He therefore decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to work in any government offices; he revoked their business licenses and rescinded their identity cards and travel documents. This mistreatment continues until the present and has created great economic hardship and, in the case of some, long-term imprisonment. Then in May 2002, the government closed down all religious groups not part of the recognized Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim faiths.

Since 1995, approximately 250 families who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have fled Eritrea and sought asylum outside the country because of the hardships. At least 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their employment because of their religion, affecting more than 300 persons. Thirty-eight Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied their business licenses. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be issued national identity cards, and thus they cannot purchase land for homes, legalize their marriages, obtain driver’s licenses, passports, or other travel documents. At least 37 families have been expelled from their homes. And because of societal and governmental pressure, Jehovah’s Witnesses have problems renting homes.

Additionally, since 1998, 31 children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from school because they refused to buy a membership ticket of the political party called NUEYS (National Union of Eritrean Youths and Students) and refused to salute the flag.

The national identity card application requires that the applicant identify his religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot write “Jehovah’s Witness” because the government has banned their religion. If Jehovah’s Witnesses fill in “Christian,” which correctly characterizes their beliefs since they strive to live as footstep followers of Jesus Christ, the Eritrean authorities reject the application. The authorities accept only Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant religions as “Christian.”

Another requirement that bars Jehovah’s Witnesses from receiving the national identity card is the prerequisite to complete national service. Since the Witnesses do not train for war, they are denied the identity papers.

Plight of conscientious objectors

The national military service requirement has no regulations or provisions for conscientious objection. To avoid being arrested by the ever-present MPs who patrol the streets, most young men who are Jehovah’s Witnesses between the ages of 18 and 40 are in hiding. If arrested, they are taken to a military camp, where they are detained, severely beaten, and forced to undergo various other forms of torture.

Three of Jehovah’s Witnesses—Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam—have been imprisoned since September 24, 1994. They are in the Sawa prison camp because of their conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons. The usual prison term for such a “crime” is three years. They are denied any visitors, including their families. No charges have been filed against them, and they have never been given a trial. If they had been brought to trial and convicted, they would have been long-since freed.

They and the other 35 prisoners wish only to be productive, useful members of their communities, while still having their Christian beliefs and consciences respected.

The Eritrean government considers that Jehovah’s Witnesses have no rights since they are considered to have renounced their citizenship by not participating in the national referendum or in national service. However, on the following page note the emphasis on the rights guaranteed to all, without distinction as to citizenship.

Eritrea’s lawful obligations

International and domestic laws are already in place relevant to conditions in Eritrea:

  • The Eritrean Constitution, adopted in July 1996, guarantees in Article 14 (2): “No person may be discriminated against on account of . . . religion . . . or any other factors.” Article 19 (1) states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.” Article 19 (4) guarantees: “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice.” (These quotes are from the draft text of the Constitution.)
  • The UN Commission on Human Rights issued Resolution 1989/59, on March 8, 1989, which stated: “The Commission on Human Rights (1) recognizes the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (2) Appeals to States to enact legislation and to take measures aimed at exemption from military service on the basis of a genuinely held conscientious objection to armed service . . .”
  • UN Resolution 1466 (2003) (adopted by the Security Council at its 4719th meeting on March 14, 2003) states: “The Security Council . . . reiterating the need for both parties [Eritrea and Ethiopia] to fulfil their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights law . . .”
  • Eritrea became a member of the United Nations and accepted the obligations contained in its charter on May 28, 1993. The Charter states in Article 1 (3) that one purpose of the United Nations is to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 2 states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as . . . religion . . . or other status.” And Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
  • In the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified by Eritrea on January 14, 1999), Article 2 guarantees: “Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as . . . religion, . . . or other status.” Article 8 guarantees: “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.”
  • The President of Eritrea was among 53 heads of African States who agreed to and adopted the Constitutive Act of the African Union on July 11, 2000. (This Act entered into force on May 26, 2001.) Article 3 states: “The objectives of the Union shall be to: . . .(e) Encourage international cooperation, taking due account of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; [and] (h) Promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.”


The foregoing shows that a mechanism is already in place internationally and domestically for justice in the form of freedom of worship to exist in Eritrea. Nonetheless, families of Jehovah’s Witnesses are still fleeing the country for asylum; severe torture and extreme brutality are even now being reported.

Of the most egregious long-term infractions Eritrea has yet to answer for is the incarceration of Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam in September of 1994 at the Sawa Camp. Eyewitnesses and former inmates of the Sawa Camp describe the harsh prison conditions as those most often associated with a concentration camp. The confinement of these three men is now over four times the maximum sentence outlined by Eritrean law for refusing to perform military service. The release of these men is long overdue!

As of October 1, 2008
(Listed by Date of Imprisonment)
Name of Prisoner Age Gender Prison Date of Imprisonment Reason for Arrest
Paulos Eyassu 37 male Sawa Camp September 24, 1994 Conscientious objection
Isaac Mogos 34 male Sawa Camp September 24, 1994 Conscientious objection
Negede Teklemariam 36 male Sawa Camp September 24, 1994 Conscientious objection
Aron Abraha 36 male Sawa Camp May 9, 2001 Conscientious objection
Mussie Fessehaye 38 male Sawa Camp June 2003 Conscientious objection
Tsegabirhan Berhe 45 male Sawa Camp January 24, 2004 Religious meeting
Ambakom Tsegezab 34 male Sawa Camp February 2004 Conscientious objection
Fesseha Ghebrezadik 25 male Sembel Prison Asmara June 2004 Religious activity (4-year sentence)
Bemnet Fessehaye 39 male Sawa Camp February 2005 Conscientious objection
Henok Ghebru 26 male Sawa Camp February 2005 Conscientious objection
Worede Kiros 53 male Sawa Camp May 4, 2005 Religious activity
Tekle Tesfai 75 male Sembel Prison Asmara May 27, 2005 Religious activity (5-year sentence)
Yonathan Yonas 24 male Sawa Camp November 12, 2005 Religious activity
Kibreab Fessehaye 32 male Sawa Camp December 27, 2005 Conscientious objection
Bereket Abraha Oqbagabir 42 male Sawa Camp January 1, 2006 Conscientious objection
Ghebru Birhane 59 male Mai Serwa March 5, 2006 Religious activity
Yosief Fessehaye 21 male Sawa Camp 2007 Conscientious objection
Amanuel Abraham male Sawa Camp 2007 Conscientious objection
Mogos Gebremeskel 63 male Adi-Abeto July 3, 2008 Unknown
Samuel Yibabie 30 male Wia July 2008 Unknown
Bereket Abraha 62 male 5th Police Station July 8, 2008 Unknown
Mesgina Gebretinsai 59 male 2nd Police Station July 10, 2008 Unknown
Goitom Gebrekristos 71 male 5th Police Station July 11, 2008 Unknown
Ermias Ashgedom 16 male 5th Police Station July 11, 2008 Unknown
Habtemichael Mekonen 68 male 2nd Police Station July 17, 2008 Unknown
Tareke Tesfamariam 59 male 2nd Police Station August 4, 2008 Unknown
Yoab Tecle 58 male 2nd Police Station August 4, 2008 Unknown
Tesfai Teklemariam 56 male 5th Police Station August 5, 2008 Unknown
Semere Ghebrekristos 63 male Adi-Abeto August 4, 2008 Working without a business license
Natnael Ghebreyesus 33 male 5th Police Station August 6, 2008 Unknown
Goitom Aradom 65 male 5th Police Station August 8, 2008 Unknown
Haile Merhu 49 male 5th Police Station August 8, 2008 Unknown
Habtemichael Tesfamariam 61 male 5th Police Station August 8, 2008 Unknown
Tewoldemedhin Habtezion 50 male 2nd Police Station August 9, 2008 Unknown
Ghebrehiwet Ghebremichael 67 male 5th Police Station August 22, 2008 Unknown
Yohannes Haile 65 male 5th Police Station September 18, 2008 Unknown
Luul Tombossa 51 female Unknown September 22, 2008 Unknown
Teferi Beyene 68 male Unknown September 23, 2008 Unknown

Country Report Prepared by:
Office of Public Information
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Fax: (718) 560-5619

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