Keste Debena | Imprisoned in Eritrea | September 01, 2001

Job:Editor, Print Reporter, Publisher/Owner
Beats Covered:Human Rights, Politics, Sports
Local or Foreign:Local
Charge:No charge
Length of Sentence:Not Sentenced
Reported Health Problems:No

Medhanie Haile 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 Medhanie and the others. At least one of the journalists died in secret detention. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that others, including Medhanie, perished in custody. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.

Medhanie's paper was one of several that 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.

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.

In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta cited a purported former Eritrean prison guard, Eyob Habte, as saying that Medhanie 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, one of whose names closely resembled Medhanie Haile. 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 Medhanie and three others.

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."

A February 2016 decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights "strongly urged" Eritrea to release or provide a "speedy and fair trial" to journalists that have been detained since 2001. The Commission also asked the government to lift the ban on the press; grant detained journalists access to their families and lawyers; and pay the detainees compensation.

In October 2017, CPJ wrote the Eritrean information ministry to ask about the conditions of all imprisoned journalists as well as the implementation of the Commission's decision. Paulos Netabay, director of the state-owed Eritrean News Agency, responded on behalf of the ministry. He said that he was not aware of the Commission's decision and that the body's rulings would not be valid until endorsed by the African Union Summit.

A November 2017 statement from Reporters without Border's Swedish Section, which is a petitioner in the case, said that the Eritrean government had yet to respond to letters inquiring into the progress of implementing the Commission's decision.

Paulos declined to comment on the specific case of Medhanie. He wrote that the journalists arrested in 2001 had been part of "acts of sedition and treason of some former politicians" and that their cases had been submitted at the time to the National Assembly.

Paulos refused to comment on the health or location of specific journalists, saying some of these details were "matters that concern the police or prison authorities." He did not answer additional emails from CPJ requesting referral to the appropriate authorities to respond to these questions. CPJ's attempts to reach these authorities independently were unsuccessful.

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