|Temesgen Ghebreyesus, Keste Debena
Temesgen is one of several journalists arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Temesgen and the others. CPJ has confirmed that at least one of the journalists has died in secret detention, and is investigating unconfirmed reports that others have also perished in custody.
Temesgen's paper was one of several that had reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice and advocated for full implementation of the country's democratic constitution. A dozen top reformist officials, whose pro-democracy statements had been relayed by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.
Authorities initially detained the journalists at a police station in the capital, Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on March 31, 2002, and smuggled a message out of jail demanding due process. The government responded by transferring them to secret locations without bringing them before a court or publicly registering charges. Several CPJ sources said the journalists were confined at the Eiraeiro prison camp or at a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.
The exact reasons behind the arrests of the journalists are not known. Local journalists said they suspected authorities arrested Seyoum Tsehaye, a photojournalist with Setit, for an interview he gave the paper in which he said the government was stifling press freedom. Seyoum was being held at Eiraeiro Prison, local journalists said.
Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests -- accusing the journalists of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, of skirting military service, and of violating press regulations. Officials, at times, even denied that the journalists existed. Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile have suggested the deaths of as many as five journalists in custody.
When asked in a June 2016 interview with Radio France International about the status of journalists and politicians arrested in 2001, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh said "all of them are alive" and they "are in good hands." Asked if they would face trial, Osman said they would, "when the government decides" since members of the group are "political prisoners."
Some of the journalists had been jailed previously. Mattewos Habteab, who originally worked with Setit but later founded his own independent weekly, Mekaleh, had written an opinion piece showing the Eritrean governments' disdain for journalists during the country's war of independence (1961-1991). This led to his arrest and detention for several months at the "Track B" military prison in Asmara. Eritrean security forces arrested Tsigenay founder Yusuf Mohamed Ali on October 14, 2000, for his criticism of the government and the generally critical content of his paper, and imprisoned him at Zara Prison in the Western lowlands of Eritrea, exiled Eritrean journalists told CPJ.
In February 2007, CPJ established that one detainee, Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes, a co-founder of the newspaper Setit and a 2002 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, had died in custody at the age of 47.
CPJ is seeking corroboration of successive reports that several of the remaining detainees may have died in custody. In August 2012, the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, citing a purported former prison guard, Eyob Habte, said Dawit Habtemichael and Mattewos Habteab had died at Eiraeiro. In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta also cited a purported former Eritrean prison guard as saying that Mattewos had died at Eiraeiro. The same purported guard, Eyob Habte, also claimed Medhanie Haile had died in Eiraeiro Prison.
In August 2006, an un-bylined report on the Ethiopian pro-government website Aigaforum quoted 14 purported former Eiraeiro guards as reporting the deaths of prisoners whose names closely resembled Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Medhanie Haile, and Said Abdelkader. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered it to be generally credible. In 2009, the London-based Eritrean opposition news site Assena published purported death certificates of Fesshaye, Yusuf, Medhanie, and Said.
CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates. Relatives of the journalists have told CPJ that they maintain hope their loved ones are still alive.
CPJ emailed Eritrea's Information Ministry in October 2016 to request updates on Temesgen's case. The ministry did not respond.
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