Dawit Isaak, the Eritrean-Swedish journalist and playwright, was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017 today in Jakarta, Indonesia. Today is World Press Freedom Day, a global United Nations commemoration, and Isaak was not present for the UNESCO ceremony.
Dawit Isaak has been held prisoner in Eritrea since September 2001. His whereabouts and his condition are unknown.
In June 2016, in a rare interview with France’s RFI (Radio France Internationale), Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, spoke with RFI’s Anthony Lattier about Eritrea’s “political prisoners,” and he specifically revealed that Dawit Isaak is still alive.
It was the first official Eritrean acknowledgement that Isaak is alive since 2009, when the nation’s president, Isaias Afwerki, ominously told a Swedish journalist that Eritrea “knows what to do with” Isaak and others “of his kind.”
Osman Saleh last year told Lattier that Isaak “is alive, he’s alive” and that all of the nation’s “political prisoners” are alive and well. However, Saleh rebuffed any suggestion that any independent agency verify this as a fact.
The phrase “political prisoners” is Saleh’s, which is why I have it in quotes here. When asked about an independent judiciary, something that most nations possess, Saleh explained that his nation has an independent judiciary for crimes, but he stated that “political prisoners” are handled differently in Eritrea; they are “handled” by the government. In the interview, Saleh almost made being a political prisoner in Eritrea sound like an appealing status rather than what it most likely is in reality: brutal and bloody, and, often, fatal.
Aside from Saleh’s claims, no one knows with any certainty where Dawit Isaak is, or even if he is indeed alive. He was last verified alive by independent observers in 2005.
Saleh’s interview came on the heels of the publication of a report by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea on behalf of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that labeled Eritrea as a “gross violator” of human rights. It cited the 47,000-plus official asylum seekers in 2015 alone and baldly pronounced what is occurring in that country as “crimes against humanity.” The Commission of Inquiry stated that its requests to visit Eritrea were all denied.
Saleh’s interview with RFI was a part of his campaign against that damning United Nations’ human rights report, which he claimed in a statement was not trustworthy in part because it was based on interviews with outsiders (remember, the UN was not allowed inside Etitrea’s borders) and in part because those outsiders were enemies, specifically, parties loyal to Ethiopia: “The gathering of information from ‘witnesses’ organized by Ethiopia allows the latter to advance its propaganda against a country that it aims to destabilize. It is a country that occupies sovereign Eritrean territory and actively engages in waging hostile acts.”
Here is RFI’s interview with Osman Saleh from June 2016:
It is possible that Dawit Isaak is no longer alive, and it is possible that he is alive but in poor mental health after nearly sixteen years in prison.
Isaak is one of several journalists who were arrested in September 2001 in Eritrea. On September 18, 2001, precisely one week after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., (thus, under the cover of attention being directed elsewhere), Isaias Afewerki closed all independent newspapers, rounded up the owners and writers (always the writers!), and outlawed the independent media, a ban that remains in place to this day.
Since 2001, Eritrea has annually been ranked by human rights groups as among the worst nations in the world for human rights. To that nation’s credit, it has outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation, but that may be a good thing it can use to deflect from its secret prisons and practice of torture as a response to free expression and an independent media.
In 2017, Reporters Without Borders ranked the media environment in Eritrea 179th place on a list of 180 countries, just ahead of North Korea.
None of those arrested by Afawerki in 2001 were tried in a court of law. None were sentenced. All were unofficially “disappeared.” Several of those arrested are reported to have died in the years since their arrests from the combination of harsh prison conditions and torture. A cemetery is reported to have been seen behind Eiraeiro Prison.
Eiraeiro Prison, located near the village of Gahtelay, is a high-security and secret facility in which prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in tiny, windowless cells, and in which they receive one liter of water per day, some food (a porridge of lentils, usually), and in which running water is turned on by the administrator once a week for a total of 20 minutes. (Details from a 2008 article by Reporters Without Borders.)
It is always striking when one is researching cases of human rights violations that certain details might be reported with a remarkable precision and others not at all. On a range from terrible to tolerable, the above paragraph might actually describe a really good or banal day for inmates at Eiraeiro Prison and not the typical day in hell that it sounds like.
There is one piece of information missing in all the reports: where is Dawit Isaak?
It is believed that Isaak is at Eiraeiro, but he might also be at Adi Abeito, a military prison near Asmara, or at Carchele, in Asmara. Anonymous Sweden reports that in 2013, “A former prison officer confirmed for the Swedish newspaper Expressen that Dawit Isaak ‘Is Okay.'”
Everything that is known about the journalists comes from a handful of semi-verified rumors: the imprisoned writers were first held in a police station is Asmara, but when they started a hunger strike as part of a demand for due process and when they also successfully smuggled a message out to the world in March 2002, they were promptly denied due process and relocated to secret prisons.
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. [Emphasis mine.] 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.
The journalists who are believed to have died include Dawit Habtemichael, whose end is described by Reporters Without Borders with some specificity: he suffered a mental breakdown in 2007 from the torture and inhumane conditions, then “he became schizophrenic and finally lost all contact with reality in 2010. The failure to treat his steadily worsening mental condition is thought to have been the cause of his death in the second half of 2010. He was prisoner No. 12 at Eiraeiro.”
On the heels of Osman Saleh’s June 2016 radio interview, Amnesty International published a white paper about Eritrea’s political prisoners, titled, “Eritrea Immediately and Unconditionally Release Prisoners of Conscience.”
It was the first time Amnesty International mentioned Dawit Isaak since 2011, in its 2011 annual report about Eritrea. Amnesty at that time reported what it believed to be safe to report: that Isaak “remained in detention, allegedly in Eiraeiro Prison. He was reportedly in poor mental and physical health.”
Dawit Isaak’s case is a unique one for one other reason: he is an international citizen. In the 1980s, as the Eritrean War for Independence from Ethiopia raged on, Isaak moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, and he became a Swedish citizen. When Eritrea voted for independence, with Ethiopia’s permission, and the new nation was born in 1993, Isaak returned to his home country, where he got married and started a family and continued working as a journalist until September 2001.
Sweden has pursued a policy of “quiet diplomacy” with Eritrea over Isaak’s case. Some have sarcastically dubbed this “silent diplomacy.”
In 2009, Swedish journalists attempted to bring attention to Dawit Isaak’s long detention, and journalist Donald Boström interviewed president Afwerki. His replies included an ominous statement. Afwerki told Boström, “We will not have any trial and we will not release him (meaning Dawit Isaak). We know how to handle him and others like him.”
Afwerki said that he “believes that the pressure put on his country, together with all opposition against the regime, is part of a conspiracy against Eritrea, lead by the US intelligence agency CIA.” (Eritrea and the United States maintain open bilateral relations. The link is to a photograph of Afwerki with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 2002.)
Afwerki fully brushes aside the attempts from the Swedish Government to get Dawit Isaak released. “Sweden is irrelevant to me. The Swedish Government has no relevance in our lives. The Swedish population should not be deluded by the acts taken by single persons in the Swedish Government.”
Isaias Afwerki says that he doesn’t know the whereabouts of Dawit Isaak and that he doesn’t care about it: “I do not even care where he is or what he does. He made a big mistake and is responsible for what he has done. I do not waste time trying to find out where he is or what he does.”
Afwerki’s 2009 comments, bizarre and petulant, were Eritrea’s only official or semi-official statements about Dawit Isaak until Osman Saleh’s RFI interview last summer.
PEN International wrote last year about Isaak: “According to the limited information available, Isaak—co-owner of the weekly newspaper Setit, playwright and writer, born 1964—has spent half of his time in detention in solitary confinement, has been tortured and is in very poor physical and mental health. He and the other inmates are not allowed any contact with the outside world, and the little information that has escaped the prison walls has suggested that they have been routinely shackled and have received almost no medical care.”
The poet David Berridge rendered much of the above far more plainly and movingly in a poem he read last month at the Modern Literature Festival hosted by English PEN:
Anonymous Sweden published a moving video to accompany a “Tweet Storm” engineered to bring international attention to Dawit Isaak’s unbearably sad story this afternoon and beyond:
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