Setit | Imprisoned in Eritrea | September 23, 2001
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Dawit Isaac, co-owner of the newspaper Setit, was one of 10 prominent journalists imprisoned in the September 2001 government crackdown on the independent press. In April 2002, Dawit was reportedly hospitalized because of torture. According to his brother, Esayas Isaac, he was again released on November 19, 2005, for medical reasons, but was detained after two days. A petition filed on behalf of Dawit with the African Commission for Human and People's rights claims that Dawit was kept in solitary confinement in 2010 "with no windows" and that he was in "very poor mental health," according to documents reviewed by CPJ.
Eritrean authorities have given vague and conflicting statements about Dawit's status over the years. When asked about Dawit's crime in a May 2009 interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki said, "I don't know," before asserting that the journalist had made "a big mistake," without offering details. The president dismissed the issue of Dawit being tried, stating, "We will not have any trial and we will not free him." Although Dawit has dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, Isaias said that since Dawit was Eritrean first, "the involvement of Sweden is irrelevant. The Swedish government has nothing to do with this."
In August 2010, Yemane Gebreab, a senior presidential adviser, said in an interview with Swedish daily Aftonbladet that Dawit was being held for "very serious crimes regarding Eritrea's national security and survival as an independent state."
In a January 2013 interview with a Swedish newspaper, former information minister and government spokesman Ali Abdu pleaded ignorance of Dawit's fate.
On June 20, 2016, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh said in an interview with RFI that Dawit and the other journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were alive and "in good hands." The minister offered no further details other than saying that the government would bring Dawit to trial "any time, when the government decides." Asked why the decision was up to the government rather than an independent judiciary, he said, "We do have an independent justice, but this is political prisoners, and the government is dealing with them."
Dawit has drawn considerable international attention, particularly in Sweden, where members of his family, including his brother Esayas, live. He has won numerous awards and prizes since his arrest, including the Golden Pen of Freedom Award of the World Association of Newspapers. Dawit was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize in May 2017.
In September 2011, on the 10th anniversary of Dawit's imprisonment, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing "fears for the life" of Dawit, calling for his release, and urging the European Council to consider targeted sanctions against relevant top Eritrean officials. In September 2014, the European Union issued a statement calling for Dawit's immediate release and citing Eritrea's violation of international and domestic obligations regarding human rights. In July 2017, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution demanding the release of Dawit and all other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea.
Media organizations including the International Press Institute have demanded that the government prove its claims that Dawit is alive by releasing him. A February 2016 decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights that CPJ read "strongly urged" Eritrea to release or provide a "speedy and fair trial" to Dawit and the other journalists that have been detained since 2001. The Commission also asked the government to lift the ban on the independent 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.
Dawit's location is uncertain but it was believed that he was held at Eiraeiro Prison, about 10 miles north of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, according to submissions made by at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights and research by PEN Eritrea in Exile, a free speech organization.
Paulos declined to comment on the specific case of Dawit. 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.
Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean journalist in exile, said given that Eritrea's parliament had not met since February 2002, these claims are an "excuse" to justify the government's actions. Government officials have previously said that there have been no trials.
Paulos refused to comment on health and 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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