(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

Scores of political prisoners, including a prisoner of conscience, were detained without charge or trial. Up to 100 political detainees arrested in previous years remained imprisoned, some following unfair trials. At least a dozen prisoners who "disappeared" in previous years were feared to have been extrajudicially executed.

Eritrea's first Constitution since independence in 1993 entered into force in May. It recognized the right to be brought to court within 48 hours of arrest and to petition for habeas corpus, but did not mention the right to legal defence representation. It did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. It imposed restrictions on human rights and allowed for derogations in a way that contravenes basic international and regional human rights standards. The death penalty was retained, although it had not been used since independence.

Eritrea was one of only two African states not to have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Elections to six new regional assemblies were held early in the year. Elections to a new National Assembly were scheduled for 1998. A new Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Labour Law were being drafted during 1997.

The government headed by President Issayas Afewerki and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, the only permitted political party, continued to face armed opposition from the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, and Abdallah Idris' faction of the Eritrean Liberation Front (elf), both based in Sudan. Relations with Sudan were tense, each government supporting the other's opponents. The territorial dispute with Yemen over the Red Sea Islands went to an international arbitration tribunal

Prisoner of conscience Ruth Simon, an Eritrean journalist working for the Agence France Presse (afp) news agency, was detained in April because of an article claiming that President Afewerki said in a seminar that Eritrean troops were assisting Sudanese opposition forces in Sudan, a statement which the President denied. She was detained without charge or trial, at first in an undisclosed prison, and later under house arrest

During the year scores of government opponents or suspected rebel supporters were reportedly detained incommunicado without charge or trial, often in secret. They included numerous Muslims suspected of links with the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, and others suspected of supporting the elf

Up to 100 members of the armed forces, and officials, of the previous Ethiopian administration detained since 1991 remained held; many of them were serving prison sentences imposed in 1996 after secret and unfair military trials (see Amnesty International Report 1997). One of them, Ajal Abdulrahman, a former assistant governor of Eritrea, died in prison in January after six years of incommunicado imprisonment

At least a dozen opponents of the government who "disappeared" in previous years were feared to have been extrajudicially executed. Some had been abducted from Ethiopia and Sudan. The Eritrean authorities repeatedly denied that they had been detained (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

Human rights abuses, including arbitrary killings of civilians, were reportedly committed by all parties to the continuing conflict between government troops and opposition forces of the Eritrean Islamic Jihad and a faction of the elf.

Amnesty International appealed for the immediate and unconditional release of Ruth Simon, and for all other political prisoners to be promptly and fairly tried. It urged the government to establish impartial inquiries into the reported "disappearances" and to allow all detainees regular access to their families and lawyers.

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