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September 18 – a bleak and dismal anniversary for Eritrea

Sixteen years ago next Monday (September 18), President Isaias arrested eleven leading ministers and political figures, including some of his onetime closest associates. This group, known as the G-15 because they were originally part of a group of fifteen leading officials, had signed a couple of open letters critical of President Isaias's actions a few months earlier. Three members of the G15 were abroad and escaped arrest; one retracted his participation.

The arrested members of the G15 were Petros Solomon, former Minister of Defense and Minister of Maritime Resources; Haile Woldetensae, former Foreign Minister and of Education; Brigadier General Estifanos Seyoum, former Director-general of Inland Revenue; Major General Berhane Gerezgiher, former Commander of the Armed Forces; Berakai Ghebreselassie, former Minister of Information and Education; Saleh Idris Kekya , former Minister of Transport and Communication; Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, former Foreign Minister, Minister of Local Government and Chair of the Electoral Law Drafting Committee; his wife, Aster Fissehatsion, former regional Head of Personnel; Hamed Himid, a Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Germano Nati, former regional Director of Social Affairs; and Major General Ogbe Abraha former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Minister of Trade and Industry and of Labor and Social Welfare. All were members of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice's central committee and of the National Assembly.

The group had signed open letters to President Isaias in May and August of 2001 calling for convening the provisional National Assembly and the central committee of the single ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, which Isaias in his capacity as President and as head of the party had refused to do. They called for President Isaias to respond to the draft constitution and the law, and allow the legislative and executive branches to perform their legal functions. They called for protection of human rights, freedom of expression and political discourse, formation and freedom of action of civic organizations, the dismantling of the Special Military Courts, for long-term prisoners to be brought before a regular court of law, and the independence of the judiciary to be guaranteed.

Their own fate and subsequent events have consistently underlined the accuracy of their criticisms.

None of G15 were ever changed or tried, and none have been seen again, though they were known to be detained in a specially built prison, Eiraeiro, in one of the most inhospitable regions of Eritrea.  Reports from former prison guards provided some detail of their treatment, kept in solitary confinement under appalling conditions and denied medical treatment. Any survivors are believed to be physically or mentally affected and in poor health. In fact, the only two of the G15, Haile Woldetensae and Petros Solomon, are still believed to be alive.

The President and other Government officials have largely refused to talk about the G15. In one of his very few public references, President Isaias told the National Assembly, at its final meeting, that the G15 had committed "treason by abandoning the very values and principles the Eritrean people fought for". He apparently identified these values with himself and his personal rule. In 2010 when questioned about the G15 detainees by a Qatari journalist, the President responded: "By God, I do not know about this issue. This issue can be forgotten."  He went on: "I say we are not prepared to be dragged, and lured, and speak on this subject. This issue is a subject matter of States, the forces that are trying to create a crisis in this country. We do not waste our time talking about this issue, which is trying to lure us into things we do not want to be lured to."

The way the G15 have been treated appears to be no different from thousands of other except, possibly, in degree. A UN Commission of Enquiry into Human Rights Abuses in Eritrea, which reported for the UN Human Rights Council in July last year, concluded there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea since 1991, that Eritrean officials had engaged in a persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the country's civilian population since 1991, and that they had committed, and continued to commit, crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder. The Commission also noted the absence of a constitution, an independent judiciary or democratic institutions. It heard no plans to hold national elections. It also found that the "gross human rights violations it documented in its previous report persist, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, killings, sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity, and reprisals for the alleged conduct of family members." It also emphasized that many of those subjected to enforced disappearance in the past remained unaccounted.

The Commission did note that there had been some increased engagement with the international community, but it emphasized that this offered "no evidence of progress in the field of human rights." It pointed out that human rights violations were cited as the main motivating factor for departure by the large numbers of Eritreans fleeing the country – up to five thousand a month.  It noted that Eritreans continued to be subjected to indefinite national service and that previous promises of limiting this were not carried out: "Conscripts are drafted for an indefinite duration of service in often abusive conditions, and used as forced labor." It noted political power and control were concentrated in the hands of the President and a small circle of loyalists, and added that it had reasonable grounds to believe that the top levels of the National Security Office and the military were responsible for most cases of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and torture. Military commanders, it added, were responsible for abuses committed under the military service program and at the borders; the leadership of the party and the military also benefitted from the use of conscripts as forced labor.

In June this year, a report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, found that nothing had changed since the conclusions and detailed findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea a year earlier. The Special Rapporteur noted that the Government of Eritrea had made no effort to address any of human rights concerns highlighted by the Commission of Inquiry, had shown no willingness to tackle impunity with regard to perpetrators of past or ongoing violations, and still refused point blank to allow the Special Rapporteur access to the country.