Ten years after his arrest on 23 September 2001, Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac remains imprisoned, incommunicado and without charge. Reports have indicated that he is being detained in appalling conditions, to the detriment of his physical and mental health. There are serious concerns that he has been denied access to medical care, and fears that he may have been tortured. PEN calls for a week of action in the days leading up to the tenth anniversary of his arrest (19–23 September). We ask that PEN members and other interested parties join us in demanding Isaac’s immediate and unconditional release, and that of fifteen other Eritrean writers who have been imprisoned for their work since 2001.
Dawit Isaac was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, which saw the country’s eight privately owned newspapers closed down. As owner of the weekly newspaper Setit, Isaac was arrested along with eight other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Not one has been charged or tried. The only justification offered for their detention takes the form of uncorroborated allegations that the reporters were “traitors”.
Their imprisonment has been prolonged in spite of a 2007 ruling issued by the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which declared their detention unlawful and arbitrary, and required the Eritrean authorities to release and compensate them.
The journalists are thought to be imprisoned in secret locations, although the most recent reports have suggested that Isaac is being held at the Eiraeiro maximum-security prison camp, 10 miles north of the capital, Asmara. There have been reports of shocking treatment at this camp – of, to take one example, prisoners being kept in metal containers and underground cells, forced to withstand temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius.
The information released about the journalists’ welfare has been extremely limited, but what we have heard is very worrying. It has been reported that at least four of the journalists have died in custody since 2005 as a result of the brutal conditions and lack of medical treatment. Further unconfirmed reports have alleged the deaths of nine out of eleven former cabinet ministers, who were also detained in September 2001 for publishing a letter which criticised the Eritrean government.
The most recent development has been the writ of habeas corpus which Isaac’s brother, Esayas Isaac, filed with Eritrea’s Supreme Court in July 2011. He is calling for a review of his brother’s imprisonment and information regarding his location. He had previously expressed his view that the Swedish government and European Union had not put sufficient pressure on the Eritrean government to release Isaac, and published an open letter to this effect in 2010.
The need for action is pressing and very real. PEN asks that its members support this cause during the week of action by sending protest letters to President Issayas Afewerki via your nearest diplomatic representative of Eritrea; organising a petition to present to your nearest Eritrean embassy or consulate, or a protest outside their premises, or asking that the ambassador of your own country based in Eritrea raises the Writers in Prison Committee’s concerns about Isaac and the other detainees.