Home Page > News Item > World Poetry Day 2017: Take Action for Amanuel Asrat

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Award-winning Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, The Times), Amanuel Asrat, was arrested at his home on the morning of 23 September 2001 amid a crackdown on state and private media. It is believed that he is being held without charge or trial. The limited information available suggests that Asrat was detained in Eiraeiro prison until the beginning of 2016 when he was allegedly transferred from the maximum-security prison to an undisclosed location along with other inmates, according to unverified information leaked in February 2016. PEN International believes that Asrat’s detention is an attempt by the Eritrean government to stifle critical voices, including calls for establishing constitutional government.

In September 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. As part of this crackdown, Amanuel Asrat was arrested on 23 September 2001, along with nine other independent journalists, among them the editors of all privately-owned newspapers. Two other writers were subsequently arrested in October 2001.

The authorities have reportedly claimed that the journalists have been sent to carry out their national service and that the detentions were necessary for the preservation of national unity or due to the newspaper’s lack of compliance with media licenses. In April 2003, President Isaias Afewerki told Radio France Internationale (RFI) that the journalists listed as arrested or missing had been bribed by forces opposed to the government to cause division. He stated, ‘You cannot say a spy is a journalist…In the middle of the war we had to check them. We had to say enough is enough’. In a 2004 interview, President Afewerki commented that there had never been any independent media in Eritrea, only journalists in the pay of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Nevertheless, PEN International believes that these arrests have been used in order to silence criticism of the Eritrean government.

Fifteen years later, the situation of Asrat and the other prisoners is still unclear.

It is unknown whether charges have been brought against them and even if any trial has taken place. There are severe health concerns as the detainees are believed to have been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, including lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of seven journalists in custody. Asrat is believed to be among the few surviving journalists; unconfirmed reports allege that only five of the twelve are still alive, but are in deteriorating health conditions. On 20 June 2016, in an interview with RFI, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Eritrea claimed that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 are alive and ‘in good hands’, though no proof has been provided by the Eritrean government nor any information as to the prisoner’s whereabouts. In the same interview, the foreign minister said that these men would be tried ‘when the government decides’.

Amanuel Asrat was featured for PEN’s 2015 Day of the Imprisoned Writer and 2016 World Poetry Day and received the 2016 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. For International Translation Day on 30 September 2015, PEN members from around the world translated ኣበሳ ኲናት (The Scourge of War) into  AfrikaansBanglaCatalanCroatianDutchEnglishHungarianLithuanianOccitan,PortugueseRussianSlovenianSpanishTamazight and Tigrinya. Alongside Raif Badawi and Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, Asrat also featured as an ‘Empty Chair’ in PEN International’s 81st Congress in Quebec City.

ኣበሳ ኲናት (The Scourge of War)’

Where two brothers pass each other
Where two brothers meet each other
Where two brothers conjoin
In the piazza of life and death
In the gulf of calamity and cultivation
In the valley of fear and peace
Something resounded.

The ugliness of the thing of war
When its spring comes
When its ravaging echoes knock at your door
It is then that the scourge of war brews doom
But…
You serve it willy-nilly
Unwillingly you keep it company
Still, for it to mute how hard you pray!

– Translated by Tedros Abraham

Background:

Amanuel Asrat is credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s. Along with two friends, he created a literary club called ቍርሲ ቀዳም ኣብ ጠዓሞት (Saturday’s Supper) in 2001. This club set a precedent for the emergence of similar literary clubs in all major Eritrean towns. Asrat is also a well-known poet and songwriter. His writings dealt with subjects ranging from the daily life of the underprivileged to war and peace topics. His work provided a negative insight towards conflict, an uncommon approach among popular Eritrean wartime poetry.

His award-winning poem ኣበሳ ኲናት (The Scourge of War) alluded to the then ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia, describing the blood shed by two brothers. In the summer of 1999, the poem was awarded a prize by the National Holidays Coordinating Committee, run by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, which organises official celebrations, commemorations and festivals around the country. The prize given is regarded as one of the most prestigious in Eritrea in terms of literary and artistic awards. The committee outlined the uniqueness of Asrat’s poem for standing sharply against war.

The newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, meaning The Times) where Asrat worked, had become the leading literary newspaper in the country and was run by a circle of critics who helped shape the cultural landscape of the country. His work in the newspaper was well-known as Asrat was the most popular art critic of his time in the country.

In September 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. In May 2001, 15 dissident members of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (which is the current ruling party in Eritrean government) published an open letter where Afwerki’s abuse of power was denounced and presented his actions as “illegal and unconstitutional”. Following the publication of the letter as well as interviews and articles related to the open letter published in the independent newspapers, all dissidents were detained and private newspapers were banned.  There is little official information of their whereabouts and well-being. Indeed, in a country where prison conditions are among the most severe – prisoners are regularly held in the desert in metal shipping containers or underground cells – there are grave concerns for their well-being. Eritrean detainees are systematically ill-treated and subjected to torture, for the purposes of punishment, interrogation and coercion. Since the closure of the independent press the government controls and runs all news outlets in the country through the Ministry of Information.

PEN International has long had serious concerns about the lack of freedom of opinion and expression and the continuing practice of incommunicado detention without trial of writers and journalists in Eritrea. Eritrea has become one of the world’s worst offenders for human rights abuses over the last decade, ranking fourth in terms of journalists imprisoned according to Committee to Protect Journalists – after Turkey, China and Egypt. PEN International is aware of at least 17 journalists currently held in circumstances amounting to enforced disappearance, some of whom are believed to have died in the appalling conditions of Eritrean prisons. Extensive censorship practices have also severely restricted literary, artistic and cultural production. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea concluded in its June 2016 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council that the Eritrean authorities were responsible for crimes against humanity committed in the 25 years since independence, including enslavement, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, rape, torture, and murder and that these crimes have been carried out ‘as part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population’.

In response to these conditions, Eritrean journalists in exile set up PEN Eritrea in order to connect this inaccessible country and the outside world, and to campaign on behalf of the country’s imprisoned journalists, many of whom have been jailed for more than a decade without contact with their families.

Please send appeals:

  • Protesting the detention of poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat on politically motivated grounds and without known charges or trial since 2001;
  • Expressing concern for Asrat’s health as detainees are believed to have suffered ill treatment, probably torture and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of seven journalists;
  • Demanding that the fate of all detained journalists be immediately clarified by the Eritrean authorities and that those still alive should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Appeals to:

President
His Excellency, Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President,
P.O.Box 257,
Asmara, Eritrea
Fax:  + 2911 125123

Minister of Information
Hon. Yemane Gebremeskel
P.O. Box 242
Asmara, Eritrea
+291 124 847
Twitter: @hawelti

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Eritrea in your country if possible. Details of some Eritrean embassies can be found here.

Social Media

Suggested tweet:

  • Free #Eritrea Poet Amanuel Asrat held without charge for 15 years for politically motivated reasons #FreeAsrat #WPD2017 @pen_int {insert link to PEN action paper}
  • On #WPD2017 take action for poets imprisoned for exercising their right to #FOE {insert link to PEN action papers}

Publicity

PEN members are encouraged to:

  • Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting Amanuel Asrat’s case;
  • Organise public events, press conferences or demonstrations;
  • Share information about Amanuel Asrat and your campaigning for him via social media.

For further information please contact Liana Merner: Lianna.merner@pen-international.org | t. + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338 | PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill Mews, London, SE1 2AN

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