Covering events from January - December 2003

Hundreds of people were arrested for the peaceful expression of their opinions or beliefs. Scores of other prisoners of conscience remained held since a major crack-down on dissent in 2001, including former government leaders and journalists. Prisoners of conscience included hundreds of members of minority religions, some detained for nine years. They were held indefinitely without charge or trial, and incommunicado in secret detention places. Torture of political prisoners was reported, including of army deserters who had no right of conscientious objection to military service. Women conscripts were reportedly sexually abused. Information came to light of ill-treatment and possible extrajudicial executions of Ethiopian prisoners of war during the 1998-2000 border conflict.


The ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) remained the sole permitted political party. The government made no announcement of any steps towards multi-party elections as required by the 1997 Constitution. No opposition activity or criticism of the government was tolerated, and no independent non-governmental organization was allowed. Constitutional protection against arbitrary detention and guarantees of "freedom of conscience, expression of opinion, movement, assembly and organization" were ignored. The private media remained banned. Law reform was delayed further and the Special Court, an anticorruption tribunal of military judges that allows no legal defence representation or appeal, continued to convict defendants in secret.

A drought put a third of the country's population at risk.

Aftermath of the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia

Fears of a new war with Ethiopia – likely to result again in huge military casualties and massive human rights abuses against civilians – intensified in late 2003. Although both sides declared they would not start war, the peace accord was thrown into question when Ethiopia rejected the April 2002 ruling of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission at The Hague, the Netherlands, and the UN Security Council's call for it to implement the ruling. The Commission had concluded that the small border town of Badme, which had been the flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war, was Eritrean territory. This indefinitely delayed the planned demarcation of the border. The UN Security Council extended further the UN Military Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which administered a buffer zone along the border.

In May the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission ruled on claims by both sides about treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) in the war. It said both sides were liable for claims through violations of the Geneva Conventions. It reported that Ethiopian POWs had been tortured – made to walk long distances barefoot, forced to do hard labour, and denied medical treatment. Some POWs were alleged to have been extrajudicially executed. Eritrea admitted that Ethiopian air force colonel Bezabih Petros died in custody but refused to say when or how. The Commission later began investigations into treatment of civilians and property claims.

Tension was exacerbated by engagement by both sides in other conflicts. Eritrea continued to host Ethiopian armed opposition groups fighting in Ethiopia (in particular the Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front), as well as the Sudanese armed opposition. Sudan and Ethiopia supported the Eritrean National Alliance (ENA), which included the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Islamist groups. Some armed activity by ENA groups was reported, such as the killing of two local humanitarian workers in August and the planting of landmines.

Prisoners of conscience

There were scores of detentions of suspected government opponents who supported calls by dissidents for democratic reforms and of others who were suspected of supporting armed opposition groups. They were arrested and secretly detained without official acknowledgement, explanation, charge or trial.

Eleven former government and ruling party leaders remained in detention as prisoners of conscience since their arrest in September 2001. No information was disclosed or known about their whereabouts or condition. They included former Vice-President Mahmoud Ahmed Sheriffo, former Foreign Minister Haile Woldetensae and former Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) intelligence chief Petros Solomon. Dozens of others also remained in incommunicado detention.


Fifteen journalists of the private and state media remained in detention at the end of the year. Most were independent media journalists who had been detained in the September 2001 crack-down, when the entire private media, which had reported on the calls for reform, was banned.

  • Aklilu Solomon, a reporter for the US-based Voice of America radio station, was detained and conscripted into the army in July after reporting adverse public reaction to the government's announcement of names of soldiers killed in the Ethiopian conflict. He had already performed the national service requirements and had medical exemption from being recalled as a reservist.

Long-term political prisoners

Hundreds or possibly thousands of government critics and opponents arrested during the first decade following independence in 1991, about whom information was difficult to obtain, were believed to be still detained in secret military and security detention centres around the country, although some had "disappeared" and were feared to have been extrajudicially executed.

  • General Bitweded Abaha, a co-founder of the EPLF detained from 1992 to 1997 and rearrested after a few weeks of freedom, was held in a secret security prison in Asmara, reportedly mentally ill and denied psychiatric treatment.

Military conscripts

Conscription for national service continued, with very little demobilization since it began in 1994. National service regulations oblige all men and women aged between 18 and 40 to do six months' military training and 18 months' development service, often construction work, with further reservist obligations. Military service was extended indefinitely during and after the war with Ethiopia and many reservists were recalled. The right to conscientious objection is not recognized by the authorities.

Conscripts accused of military offences were punished with torture (see below) and indefinite arbitrary detention.

  • Paulos Iyassu, Isaac Moges and Negede Teklemariam, all members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group, which opposes war and the bearing of arms, remained in detention since 1994 in Sawa military barracks without charge or trial.

Religious persecution

Between February and May, police cracked down on minority Christian churches, breaking into religious services and church premises, arresting and beating church members, and torturing them in military detention centres. Those who were liable for military service were conscripted and others were provisionally released after weeks in detention, with threats of severe reprisals if they continued their religious activities. Religions other than the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Catholic and Lutheran churches and Islam were banned in May 2002 and ordered to register with the new Department of Religious Affairs, but had been informally allowed to continue.

In August, over 200 teenage school students on a compulsory pre-conscription course at Sawa military camp were arrested for possessing bibles. Twenty-seven girls and 30 boys were held in metal shipping containers in harsh conditions. They were pressed to abandon their faith. At least 330 church members, including over 80 conscripts, were reportedly still detained in secret at the end of 2003. Muslims suspected of links with Sudan-based armed Islamist groups were also targeted for repression.

Dozens of Qur'anic teachers and government schoolteachers arrested in Keren and other towns in 1994 remained in secret detention and appeared to be prisoners of conscience.

Torture and ill-treatment

Torture continued to be used against some political prisoners and as a standard military punishment. Army deserters and conscription evaders were tortured in military custody. They were beaten, tied hand and foot in painful positions and left in the sun for lengthy periods ("the helicopter" torture method), and suspended by ropes from the ceiling. Religious prisoners were held in Sawa and other military camps, beaten and forced to crawl on sharp stones. They were kept in overcrowded shipping containers in unventilated, hot and unhygienic conditions, and denied adequate food and medical treatment.

Violence against women

Female genital mutilation was widely practised, despite government and UN education programs. Domestic violence against women was reportedly common. Some women conscripts were reportedly subjected to rape or other sexual abuse by army officers.


Most of the 100,000 or more Eritrean refugees in Sudan resident there for up to 30 years appealed against losing their refugee status as a result of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' cessation of refugee status in 2002 for pre-1991 and 1998-2000 war refugees. Several hundred Eritreans fled to Sudan and other countries in 2003, mainly army deserters and others fleeing conscription.

Some 232 Eritreans who were deported by Malta in September/October 2002 were detained on arrival in Eritrea. Women, children and the elderly were reportedly released but the remainder were tortured and detained without charge or trial, at first in Adi Abeto military camp near Asmara, later on the main Dahlak Island in the Red Sea, and then at other secret military detention centres.

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