This article was originally published on the Guardian’s Liberty Central
While we cannot be sure that there is a heaven, three weeks ago we received partial confirmation that hell is a reality with a known location. Its address is the infamous Eiraeiro prison in Eritrea, 10 miles north of the capital city Asmara, where 35 high-level political prisoners of the Eritrean regime have been held captive in recent years.
Fifteen of these prisoners are known to have died, nine are suffering from serious medical problems and the others are enduring brutal prison conditions. One of them is my brother, the journalist Dawit Isaak, a Swedish citizen, who was first detained in 2001. He was briefly released in 2005, only to be rearrested again within days. In all of his eight and a half years of detention, he has never been formally charged with a crime. Isaak and nine journalist colleagues were arrested seemingly for nothing more than criticising the lack of press freedom and democratic debate in Eritrea.
The most recent revelations of a former prison guard who managed to flee to neighbouring Ethiopia in January, and whose information was first reported in Sweden in April, make clear that Dawit and other inmates are kept in horrendous circumstances. They are not allowed any contact with the outside world or with each other. Their cells are brutally hot almost all year round. They are constantly shackled and the only time they leave their cells is to spend one hour per day in a walled courtyard measuring four square meters. The men receive virtually no medical care and many appear to be psychologically broken.
According to a former guard, who fled because he feared for his own life if the prisoners died, the deprivations suffered by the inmates are “worse than torture”. Under pressure from critics, the Swedish government has repeatedly refused comment, asserting that it is doing everything it can to rescue Dawit. The Swedish public, our family and human rights activists are increasingly concerned, however, that Dawit, who suffers from diabetes, may be lost before help reaches him. Their concerns appear well justified.
Why, for example, have Swedish officials so far not bothered to interview the escaped prison guard?
We would like to stress that we do not completely discount the value of silent diplomacy. While we fully appreciate the enormous difficulties and complexities of the case, the question that presents itself most urgently is, what can we all do together to save Dawit before it is too late? Efforts at the EU level, such as seeking the suspension of aid to Eritrea, as well as applying diplomatic pressure on the regime, are vitally important. The EU process is slow and bureaucratic, and the representatives’ attention is currently diverted by the spreading global financial crisis.
We strongly believe that the battle also has to be taken directly to Eritrea. President Isaias Afewerki has to be prevailed upon to accept a credible emissary who negotiates Dawit’s release. At the same time, the Eritrean regime’s violation of international humanitarian conventions for the treatment of prisoners, such as ensuring adequate food, medical care and other basic rights, needs to be highlighted in the most stringent terms. A Swedish or international medical team — under the auspices of the International Red Cross or an organisation such as Doctors Without Borders — should be placed on 24-hour standby to leave for Eritrea.
The Eritrean government should be requested every single day to give clearance for such a visit. That would highlight the problem while also underscoring the most necessary action to be taken this very instant. The idea that Afewerki cannot be dealt with, that he is worse than any other dictator, is a fallacy. Sweden and the EU must now send a strong signal. They must officially and publicly demand access to a prisoner who is not only a full Swedish citizen, but also an EU citizen (its only prisoner of conscience). Dawit, tragically, stands as a symbol for the continued suffering of the victims of human rights abuses worldwide. If democratic governments fail to firmly stand up to such outrages, they not only lose credibility but become passive aides of the torturers who commit these crimes.
This open letter was signed by Esayas Isaak, brother of Dawit Isaak, founder of the Free Dawit Committee,as well as Ingvar Carlsson, former prime minister of Sweden, Ola Ullsten, former prime minister of Sweden, Mogens Lykketoft, former foreign minister of Denmark, Thorvald Stoltenberg, former foreign minister of Norway, Carl Tham, former minister of education, Sweden, Cecilia Wigström, member of the Swedish Parliament, leader of the All-Party Group for Dawit Isaak, Maxamed Daahir Afrax, author, president of the Somali-speaking PEN, Djibouti, Russell Banks, author, USA, André Brink, author, South Africa, John Le Carré, author, Great Britain, Nuruddin Farah, author, Somalia, Abdulrazak Gurnah, author, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Charles Onyango-Obbo, editor, The Nation, Nairobi, Shailja Patel, author, Kenya, Abdourahman Waberi, author, Djibouti, Günter Wallraff, author and activist, Germany, Ove Bring, professor of international law, Sweden, David Matas, international human rights attorney, Canada, Elsa Chyrum, director of Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, Great Britain, Joel Simon, executive director, Committee to Protect Journalists, USA Jean-François Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontières, France, Christian Rickert, reporter Ohne Grenzen, Germany, Peter Englund, author, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Jesper Bengtsson, president of Reporters without Borders, Sweden, Mats Söderlund, president of the Swedish Writer’s Union, Ola Larsmo, chairman Swedish PEN, Mehari Abraham, Eritrean journalist in exile, program director Tv-Zete, Sweden, Susanne Berger, researcher, USA, Vibeke Sperling, senior correspondent Politiken, Denmark, and more. For a full list of signatories, please visit this page