U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Eritrea

    Eritrea became an independent single-party State in May l993, following a U.N.-supervised election in which Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia. President Isaias Afwerki and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), renamed in February the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), remained the dominating political and military force. The Government has been in de facto control of the country since l991, when EPLF forces decisively defeated the Ethiopian army of then dictator Colonel Mengistu. At the 1994 Third Party Congress, the President and the EPLF/PFDJ outlined an ambitious program for establishing a democratic form of government by 1996. In April the party-controlled National Assembly created a 50-member National Constitution Commission to draft a constitution. The ELPF armed forces, which in 1992 comprised over 100,000 regulars, continued to serve as the main internal security force in 1994. There are intelligence components within the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs. The Government began in late 1993 to demobilize this force and by the end of 1994 had released over 40,000 persons, some of whom formed the cadre for a new police force. At the same time, the Government began to face a new security threat by the fundamentalist Eritrean Islamic Jihad rebels who attacked Eritrea from base camps in Sudan in December 1993. President Isaias announced that his soldiers had killed 20 Jihad fighters in the December encounter, and there were several deaths on both sides as a result of additional Jihad forays. Sporadic terrorist attacks by fundamentalist groups continue, but there has been no notable increase in the number of incidents. There were no known human rights abuses committed by the military forces. Approximately 95 percent of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. The economy was decimated by years of war, but excellent rains have produced an abundant harvest of four grains. The commercial (wage) sector is small and largely centered in Asmara, the capital, and the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab. The Government continued to provide liberal access to the ports for the now landlocked Ethiopia. Port fees are an important source of revenue for the Government. The Government continued to have strong popular support, and it generally respected human rights. As in the past 3 years, the Government promised eventually to institute a democratic, multiparty political system. However, it is carefully controlling the political process and allows little opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard in the controlled media. Although the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC) complained that the Government had excluded it from the constitutional review process, individual members of the ELF-RC and other opposition groups actively participated in the work of the Constitutional Commission. The Government's continuing refusal to recognize the sole human rights organization, the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development, does not bode well for the Government's willingness to tolerate the expression of independent views (see Section 4). The Government continued to detain without charge or trial at least 50 persons for association with radical Islamic political elements or suspected terrorist organizations. There were reliable reports that local police regularly picked up private citizens and sometimes held them for long periods without charging them. The President pardoned 130 (of the remaining 137) persons detained without charge since 1991 for alleged human rights violations during the Mengistu period.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings. There was, however, an incident in which two persons died, when ex-fighters took hostages and hijacked vehicles in a protest over demobilization benefits. During attempts to quell the protest, security forces killed two of the protestors. Under the circumstances, the use of force was not excessive.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances. There was no further information on the whereabouts of several officials of the ELF-RC, who allegedly had been abducted in Ethiopia or Sudan and secretly detained in Eritrea since 1992. A government official denied that they were in Eritrea.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There were no reports of torture by security forces. There was, however, one case in which an Eritrean-American woman alleged that police beat her while in detention. The woman was released and never filed a formal complaint. This is the first known incident of alleged abuse by security forces. Prison conditions are generally Spartan but not inhuman. Adequate food, bedding material, and sanitation facilities are available, and family members are allowed to provide food, clothing, and medicine to prisoners. There have been no instances of death due to prison conditions. In traditional prison facilities, the Government does not permit prisoners to correspond with family or friends and limits family visits to one a month, and then for only 10 minutes. It also does not permit independent monitoring groups, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to visit prisons although the Government did allow a U.S. diplomatic official to visit one of the prisons and conduct interviews with both male and female inmates. There is no evidence that political and security prisoners are treated differently from the general prison population. Rape does not appear to be a problem in prisons. Although the Government has refused to describe it as a prison, security forces used the "Disabled Center" in Asmara to detain people in conditions bordering on cruel and inhuman. The Center is ostensibly a temporary holding facility for street beggars and a permanent shelter for the homeless and the mentally ill. However, those arrested by urban police for other reasons are routinely held at the Center for long periods in overcrowded holding rooms. Detainees are left in semi-isolation and are not allowed to exercise or receive visitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Criminal Code provides that detainees may be held for a maximum period of 30 days without being charged with a crime. In practice, the authorities frequently hold suspected persons for much longer periods without charge, in part due to a seriously overloaded judicial system. Police in Asmara have arrested and arbitrarily detained ordinary citizens at the Disabled Center for up to 14 months without formal charges or a trial. The percentage of the total prison population consisting of pretrial detainees was unknown. Since coming to power in 1991, the Government has detained two special categories of people: those suspected of human rights violations under the Mengistu regime; and persons allegedly associated with certain political or terrorist organizations. In the first category, the Government pardoned 130 of the remaining 137 such persons on the occasion of the first anniversary of independence. There were no new arrests of persons suspected of human rights violations under Mengistu. The Government continued to hold on security grounds a number of detainees, but the exact number of these detainees at year's end was unknown. It was also unknown if the Government continued to detain, without charge, three Eritreans, who had returned in 1993 from Saudi Arabia, to propagate political Islam.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Until a constitution is adopted, the current civil law system, borrowed from Ethiopia, is derived from the Napoleonic Code. Most crimes are brought to the lower court which is presided over by a single judge. Serious crimes are tried publicly by a panel of three judges, and defendants have access to legal counsel at their own expense. There are no attorneys available at public expense, although the Government has asked attorneys to work pro bono to represent defendants accused of serious crimes who cannot afford attorneys. Defendants may appeal verdicts to the Appellate Court, which is composed of five judges and presided over by the President of the High Court. Crimes committed by members of the military are handled by military courts. Although the Government did state that a special court would be established in Asmara to try all remaining political and security detainees by early 1995, it took no implementing steps to establish this special court by year's end. The judiciary is independent, and there were no known incidents of executive interference in the judicial process. However, the underdeveloped judicial system suffers from a severe lack of trained personnel, legal resources, and infrastructure. Of the 20 practicing judges assigned to the High Court, only 3 have law degrees. In the summer, 80 new trainees received a 2-month crash course in law before being assigned to rural areas to begin judicial duties. The Justice Ministry assigned others for internship with practicing magistrates. Since the population is largely rural, most citizens' only contact with the legal system is through traditional "courts." The village judges, appointed by a panel of government magistrates, provide justice in civil matters. Criminal cases are transferred to magistrates versed in criminal law. Many local issues, e.g., property disputes, and most petty crimes are adjudicated by local elders according to custom or, in the case of Muslims, the Koran. These traditional courts cannot give sentences involving physical punishment. The Government held no known political prisoners at the end of the year (see Section 1.d.). No trials for political or security detainees have been conducted in the regular courts.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Under the Criminal Code, warrants are required to monitor mail, telephones, or other means of communication. Warrants are required in routine searches and seizures, except in cases where authorities believe individuals may attempt to escape or destroy evidence. In the past this restriction has often not been observed, but there were no reports of illegal surveillance or searches in 1994.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although Eritreans continue to express their opinions openly on various issues, there is some self-censorship, especially with regard to the President and the Government. The Government has not enacted any laws regarding press freedom, but in March the National Assembly extensively debated the role of the press and formed a committee to reformulate a draft press law. The Government controls the tiny media, which includes the biweekly government-financed newspaper Hadas Eritrea and one radio and television station. Hadas Eritrea carefully avoids criticism of the President or other government figures. Eritrea Profile, a weekly English-language newspaper, owned by the Ministry of Information and Culture, appeared in 1994. The print media criticized the Government on numerous occasions but carefully avoided criticism of the President. There is no formal government censorship body. According to international human rights monitors, government reluctance to grant the Regional Center for Human Rights official registration as a nongovernmental organization has hampered the Regional Center's efforts to publish a private newspaper. There is full academic freedom at the University of Asmara.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

At year's end, the new National Constitutional Commission had begun consideration, among many topics, of freedoms of assembly and association. At present, a permit is required from the Ministry of Internal Affairs for a public meeting or demonstration. In general, the authorities grant these permits for nonpolitical meetings or gatherings. There is no legal provision for forming political parties, nor have any attempts been made to do so. In particular, there is no evidence of activities in Eritrea by such opposition groups as the ELF-RC. The Government asserts that the permanent constitution will provide for a multiparty system.

c. Freedom of Religion

All denominations and faiths practice freely without government restriction. This includes the Jehovah's Witnesses, whom previous regimes had prohibited from worshiping publicly. In October, however, a Presidential decree barred Jehovah's Witnesses from government employment and from possession of business licenses or identification papers--thereby restricting their ability to travel and to engage in other activities. This step was apparently taken in retaliation for their refusal to participate in the 1993 referendum and in the National Youth Service Program.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

In general, all persons may live and travel freely abroad and within Eritrea, except for some areas restricted for security reasons. In particular, clashes between government forces and the Eritrean Islamic Jihad have left a tense security situation along the border with Sudan. The Government does not arbitrarily restrict the right of citizens who have left the country to return. Eritrea plays host to a small number of refugees, mainly Somalis residing in Asmara and Assab. A pilot refugee program has begun, and 25,000 Eritreans are expected to return from the Sudan within the next several months. Planning for a further 135,000 returnees in 1995 is actively under way among the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Governments of Eritrea and Sudan.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have this right although the Government has promised to introduce multiparty democracy by 1996. At present, the President and the EPLF/PFDJ completely dominate the political scene, including the National Assembly. The Government is especially sensitive to maintaining a balance in the Cabinet and top positions between Christians and Muslims, and ethnic groups (nine were represented in 1994). The Third EPLF Party Congress's decision to change names was intended to signify its transition from an insurgent group fighting for independence to a political movement directed at the economic, social, and political development of the nation. To date, opposition groups--which often manifest themselves by sporadic terrorist attacks in rural areas--have received little support. Eritrean Muslims in particular have opposed such violent opposition activities. In April the National Assembly created a 50-member National Constitution Commission to draft a democratic constitution. The Assembly selected some 42 members, including 20 women, from a representative cross-section of Eritrean society. The President appointed the remaining eight. Although the ELF-RC complained that the Government had excluded it from the process, individual members of the ELF-RC and other opposition groups actively participated in the work of the Commission. The Commission formed four committees, including a governmental institutions and human rights committee. It opened branch offices in the provinces and began a series of hearings to promote public participation in the constitution-making process. The Commission is expected to prepare a draft document within the year and to complete the process within 2 years. The Government in 1993 began to develop interim political institutions by holding local elections involving multiple candidates, but no parties, in all 10 provinces for local legislatures. In turn, the provincial legislatures sent 3 members, 1 of whom had to be a woman, to the 150-member National Assembly. In addition to the female members of the regional delegations, 10 additional places for women are reserved in the National Assembly, thus assuring 20 seats for women. In addition to the positions in the new legislative bodies, women hold senior positions in the Government, including the Ministers of Justice and Tourism. To further include women in the political process, the Third Party Congress named 3 women to the party's Executive Council, and 12 women to the Central Council. Women now occupy more than half the seats on the National Constitution Commission.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government has not been receptive to the formation of domestic human rights groups. Since 1991 it has repeatedly delayed recognition of the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development, a human rights organization based in Asmara. As a result, the Regional Center has not become an effective organization for publicizing human rights abuses, and there are no other local human rights organizations in Eritrea. However, the Government has given the leaders of the Regional Center a role in the work of the National Constitution Commission. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Internal Affairs are responsible for all human rights inquiries but are frequently slow to respond to international inquiries concerning alleged human rights abuses. In individual cases, the Government has been helpful. For example, a senior Foreign Ministry official discussed a case involving missing Eritreans with a concerned human rights group in New York.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


The Government has taken a consistently strong stand in favor of improving the status of women, many of whom played a significant role as fighters in the struggle for independence. In 1991 the then provisional EPLF government codified a broad range of rights for women, including guarantees of equal educational opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and legal sanctions against domestic violence. The Third Party Congress advocated additional rights and programs for women, including the right of women to equal rights to use of land and to other property. A government proclamation confirmed that women have equal rights of land use, regardless of marital status; the proclamation specified that, while all land belongs to the State, it would grant leaseholds to all citizens on a nondiscriminatory basis. Nevertheless, despite the Government's attitude and some legal changes, the larger Eritrean society remains traditional and patriarchal, and women generally play a subservient role in the family and in the community. In practice, males remain privileged in terms of education, employment, and control of economic resources, including land. This disparity is even more visible in predominantly rural Muslim areas. The Government has taken a firm position against domestic violence. Neither health, police, nor judicial sources consider the problem to be extensive.


The Department of Social Affairs is the agency responsible for government policies concerning the rights and welfare of children. However, the Department has few funds, and the Government does not generally look on child welfare as a serious social problem. Female genital mutilation, which is practiced widely on girls at an early age throughout Eritrea, is considered by international experts to be dangerous to both physical and psychological health. The Government, through the Ministry of Health and the National Union of Eritrean Women, actively discourages the practice.

People with Disabilities

As a result of the 30-year civil war, there are thousands of disabled male and female former fighters for whom the Government expends large amounts of money. Most physically disadvantaged Eritreans are viewed as heroes; there is no discrimination in employment, education, or other state services against people with disabilities. However, there are no laws that mandate access for the disabled to public thoroughfares or public and private buildings.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

There are no government restrictions regarding the formation of unions in any segment of Eritrean labor activities, including the military, the police, and other essential workers; and labor association is encouraged by the Government. Under Proclamation Number 8 of the Transitional Labor Laws, workers now have the legal right to form unions and to strike and protect their interests. The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW), which was part of the EPLF during the civil war, underwent reorganization and became formally independent of the Government and the EPLF/PFDJ in September. THe NCEW represents over 20,000 workers from 129 unions, and it began forming these unions into 5 worker federations during 1994. The largest union is the Textile, Leather, and Shoe Federation. There were no strikes in 1994. Proclamation Number 8 prohibits retribution against strikers.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Both Proclamation number 8 and the 1993 draft labor code provide for free collective bargaining. There were 41 collective agreements in 1994. Eritrea is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and worked closely with the ILO in preparing the 1993 draft, which, inter alia, prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers against union members and establishes a mechanism for resolving complaints of discrimination. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There is no law prohibiting forced or compulsory labor. A government summer work program for 15,000 teenagers became controversial as it mandated the participation of all high school students. Participants received $20 (120 birr) per month to work on community service projects, such as road repair, farm work, and the planting of trees. In addition, all successful work program participants received a certificate that was later required for fall-term school registration.

d. Minimun Age for Employment of Children

The legal minimum age for employment is 18 years, although apprentices may be hired at age 14. While the Commission on Social Welfare is responsible for enforcement, there is no random or systematic inspection of factories and shops for compliance. Despite the high rate of adult unemployment in Eritrea, the number of children under 18 years of age working in commercial enterprises continued to grow. Rural children often help on family farms. Urban children often sell small wares, such as cigarettes, on the street.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no legally mandated minimum wage. Wages vary from a minimum of $25 up to $200 per month (birr 150 up to birr 1,200), with factory workers earning the highest amount. Former fighters are entitled to a monthly wage of at least $75 (birr 450). The workweek is now 48 hours, but many people work less. While there is no legal provision, all employees receive at least 1 day off per week, and most receive 1 1/2 days. There are no mandated occupational health and safety laws or standards currently in force, although some larger companies enforce their own health and safety standards. The draft law includes a number of provisions concerning women, including one that states that women, during pregnancy, will not be assigned to jobs that could endanger their lives or the lives of their unborn children.

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