Eritrea's Isaias reels from harsh rights abuses spotlight

Swedish firm, UN add to international pressure over perceived state-backed violations in Horn of Africa country.

Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki is again under the microscope over human rights violations, as a Swedish firm targeted him for crimes against humanity, just days after the United Nations authorised an investigation into widespread abuses in the country. 

Eritrean officials were yet to respond but last week slammed the renewed focus on the country as fabricated and meant to create the illusion of a “fake crisis”, accusing archrival Ethiopia of being behind the unfavourable turn of events.

The as yet unnamed legal firm Tuesday reported several top Eritrean leaders to the police for crimes against humanity, after a new law took effect enabling such crimes committed anywhere else in the world to be prosecuted in Sweden.

According to the latest figures, 12,800 Eritreans live in Sweden, and the number of asylum seekers from the country keeps growing.

Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001, and 13 years on little is known of his fate.

The Swedish report lists a series of alleged crimes including torture and kidnapping, and targets Issaias and several of his ministers by name.

“This is not only symbolic. We believe there are legal grounds to prosecute the people we have named,” human rights lawyer Percy Bratt told news agency AFP.

First of its kind
The legal move was the first of its kind in Sweden and was filed the same day that crimes against humanity were introduced into the Swedish penal code.The code enables judges to prosecute crimes regardless of where they have been committed or by whom.

“There is a lot of evidence from human rights groups, particularly about indefinite imprisonment without trial (in Eritrea),” said Bratt.

“There are also many Eritreans in Sweden who could give information about the conditions in the country in general.”

Bratt said if even the case is taken up by the prosecutors, it could take years before criminal charges are laid, given the complexity of the cases.

Last Friday, the UN’s top human rights body launched an investigation into widespread abuses in Eritrea, including extrajudicial executions, torture and forced military conscription that can last decades.

Countries are often put through the wringer by country-specific inquiries, which are often thoroughly researched and heavily publicised.  

“The human rights crisis in Eritrea has been forgotten for too long and the scale of violations is unparallelled, putting the country among the worst human rights situations worldwide,” Somalia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, Yusuf Mohamed Ismail Bari-Bari, told the council.

Slammed resolution
The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution tabled by Somalia and France establishing a one-year special commission of inquiry into the situation in the autocratic Horn of Africa state.

China, Pakistan, Venezuela and Russia refused to join the consensus, but the resolution passed without a vote, calling for the creation of a three-member investigation team to probe “all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea.”

The team will include the UN’s current monitor on the rights situation in the country, Sheila Keetharuth, and is set to present its findings to the 47-member council during its February-March session next year.

Eritrea’s representative on the council, Teestamicael Gehrahtu, slammed the resolution which he said was made up of “fabrications, wrong perceptions and baseless assumptions” used to create the illusion of a “fake crisis”.

Eritrea, with a population of five million and a size about the same as Britain, is one of the most isolated and secretive countries in the world.

According to the United Nations, 4,000 Eritreans flee the country every year to escape ruthless repression, including unlimited forced labour for the government.

Pressure group Amnesty International last year said some 10,000 Eritreans had been imprisoned for political reasons since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, which the government denied.

Rare internal criticism
The UN’s resolution said children are forced to complete their final year of school in military training camps, and deplored the “intimidation and detention of those suspected of evading national service in Eritrea and their family members.”

Friday’s resolution also strongly condemned other serious rights violations committed under the iron-grip rule of Issaias, including “cases of arbitrary and extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, the use of torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention without recourse to justice, and detention in inhumane and degrading conditions.”

Last month four bishops in a rare step carefully criticised the country, noting that many people were fleeing. 

“There is no reason to search for a country of honey if you are in one,” they wrote in their 38-page letter written in local language Tigrinya.


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