Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Swedish-Eritrean Prisoner of Conscience in Eritrea

On May 3 every year, activists, media and rights groups worldwide celebrate World Press Freedom Day and remind governments of their obligation to respect freedom of expression - a fundamental human right. This right is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, many states have failed in their duty to respect the right of freedom of expression. This explains why, today, there are millions of people imprisoned worldwide simply because their political or religious views are considered to be flawed. Many are prisoners of conscience and most of them have never been charged with any crime. This is the story of Dawit Isaac, an Eritrean-Swedish prisoner of conscience. On Monday 3 May, 2010 (World Press Freedom Day), rights and media groups in Sweden called on the European Union (EU) to take action to secure his release.

According to Amnesty International, prisoners of conscience are:

"men, women and children imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs or because of their race, gender or other personal characteristics."

Dawit Isaac is imprisoned in Eritrea for the "peaceful expression" of his beliefs. He is an Eritrean-Swedish author, playwright and journalist who has been in jail since September 2001 in Eritrea. As if this is not enough, he has never been charged. Isaac owned the now-banned weekly newspaper - Setit and was arrested on 23 September 2001, together with eight other journalists, during a massive state-sponsored crackdown on private press. He has long "disappeared" in custody!

On Monday, rights groups in Sweden called on the EU to "gradually halt" aid to Eritrea, until the Eraeiro prison - a "death camp" where Isaac is said to be held, is shut down, inmates released and given medical attention and an open trial.

Some have argued that halting aid to Eritrea, in a bid to secure the release of a prisoner of conscience, is a step too far - but there is no denying that a crackdown on journalists in Eritrea represents a threat to democracy and the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

It is worth mentioning that the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights ruled on May 2007 that the arrest and imprisonment of journalists in Eritrea - including Dawit Isaac, was unlawful and called on the Eritrean government to release and compensate the detainees. However, the journalists remain jailed. This is a testament to the government's defiance of international law.

Although Eritrea recalled its ambassador to the African Union (AU) in November 2009, the government is still bound by the decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. This is the case because the decision was handed down before the recall. It is interesting to note that relations between the government of Eritrea and the AU was severed after the AU called on the United Nations security Council (UNSC) to impose sanctions on Eritrea.

The UNSC Resolution 1907 imposed targeted sanctions on Eritrea - including asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo, for aiding rebels in Somalia. More targeted sanctions from the EU, as requested by Swedish media groups, would bring more pressure to bear on Eritrea and secure the release of the Eritrean-Swedish prisoner of conscience and his colleagues.

Take action to secure Isaac's release here.

Photo of Dawit Isaac and cartoon - courtesy of The Local and WAN-IFRA/Cambon respectively.

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