Home Discussion Papers Rights in Focus A bludgeoned horn: Eritrea’s abuses and ‘guilt by association’ policy
A bludgeoned horn: Eritrea’s abuses and ‘guilt by association’ policy
Written by Ishan Asokan (1) Friday, 16 November 2012 08:02

The word ‘guilt’ takes on new meaning in the Horn of Africa. Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea’s Government has yet to be held accountable for the human rights violations, crimes, and atrocities that have been a common feature of the struggle to maintain order. Since waging its relatively recent war on Ethiopia in 1998, the Eritrean Government has created a widespread refugee population of nearly 237,000 people.(2) Eritreans, some as young as six years old, arrive in droves at the borders of neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia, in the hope of escaping lives rife with pain.(3)

On 5 July 2012, the United Nations (UN) declared its intention to launch an investigation into forced conscription, summary executions, and other torturous practices conducted by the Government; Eritrea has yet to acknowledge this request.(4) This CAI paper focuses on the human rights violations orchestrated by the Eritrean Government, with special emphasis on the ‘Guilt by Association’ policy.

2001’s domino dissension

The Eritrean Government’s continued refusal to allow access to foreign officials investigating alleged human rights abuses has raised many concerns for the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC).(5) Early evidence of such abuses includes the arrest of the infamous G-15 group by President Isaias Afewerki in late September 2001. This group of 21 critics, including journalists, high-level political advisors, and military officials, condemned the abuses taking place under the rule of the president. Following the arrest of the G-15, Afewerki closed all private newspapers, and arrested 60 additional dissenters.(6) Grounds for arrest included the verbal and public criticism of the Afewerki regime.(7) Upon arrest, members of the G-15 were restricted to solitary confinement and 5 of the 11 are now rumoured to be dead.(8) Several of these G-15 members existed as Ministers of Trade, Commerce, and Foreign Affairs, and formerly served as veterans in the 24-year war against Ethiopia. Their instrumental role in achieving independence was soon forgotten under Afewerki’s dictatorship. Despite sharing Afewerki’s vision of a free Eritrea, as members of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF),(9) they found themselves on thin ice. Their public disagreement with the state of the regime, at the time, led to their suspension.

One key leader, General Ogbe Abraha, advised Afewerki to adopt a system of governance that upheld collaborative leadership. He was later fired for his views and shared a similar fate to his comrade, Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, who actively disobeyed Afewerki in an effort to advance the adoption of multiparty elections.(10) Afewerki’s open disapproval of their views motivated the G-15 to draft a letter detailing the president's corruption and dangerous judgement. The letter went on to conclude that, unless Afewerki accepted the proposed constitution, he could no longer be tolerated as the leader of Eritrea. Upon publication, the G-15 was immediately arrested, as were the 10 journalists (now labelled rebels by the regime) who reported on the events that followed.(11)

A wave of arrests followed, leaving as many as 60 individuals incarcerated. This was not, however, the first round-up of dissenters in Eritrea. In July 2001, a group of students from the University of Asmara who had begun to voice disapproval of educational reforms (particularly a summer work programme enacted under Afewerki), were arrested, jailed, or sent to Wi’a, a scorching desert camp near the port city of Massawa.(12) Two students died of heatstroke and parents of the accused were publicly flogged for demanding the release of their children.(13) Ministers who expressed disapproval over the handling of the matter were later dismissed. A number of similar events had occurred prior to the arrest of the G-15 and, by 2001, independent media was not permitted to enter Eritrea to cover local politics. Since the arrest of the G-15, human rights violations continue to be reported by affected parties, particularly refugees.(14)

Decoding the crime

With Eritrea described as the world’s largest prison, the abuses of the Eritrean administration have attracted attention from numerous international human rights organisations.(15) Beyond arbitrary arrest of dissenters, the Eritrean Government challenges the UNHRC through a number of parallel crimes. In addition to failing to accept the reformed constitution of 1997 (16) and refusing to allow free elections,(17) Afewerki refuses to uphold the right of the imprisoned to fair trial.(18) According to a World Bank study, Eritrea ranks poorly in employing good governance.(19) Those at particular risk of arbitrary arrest now include ex-military officials and those who attempt to evade military conscription. Individuals who subscribe to “unrecognised religions”(20) are also at risk of arrest, and are subsequently forced to renounce their faith or face torture. At least one man has died in custody for refusing to renounce his religion.(21) It is estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 Eritreans (22) occupy the nearly 300 regional prisons (23) built during the Afewerki regime. This stark contrast in distribution of resources, compared with the rest of the Horn of Africa, heightens suspicion of extensive unlawful detention in Eritrea.

In addition to holding prisoners indefinitely and without access to legal or familial advocacy,(24) Eritrea upholds a law of military conscription. Under the Waray-Yikealo development campaign of 2002, Eritrean authorities pushed for mandatory military service, with exceptions for certain women and all children.(25) Male conscripts are eligible to serve into their fifties,(26) depending on physical capability. Conscription lasts for approximately 10 years but, with no formal cap on service enlistment, the country keeps soldiers on duty indefinitely. Those relieved of their duty to serve may be called back to serve at any time, with this mandate selectively applied to those suspected of political dissension.(27)

How does the witch hunt end?

The conscription laws have exacerbated the refugee crisis, as many young people flee the country hoping to avoid military service.(28) In desperation for recruits, the regime has taken to hunting down youths attempting to evade conscription. If caught, individuals are sentenced to life imprisonment.(29) When a hunted conscript cannot be found, the Eritrean Government takes drastic measures through its ‘Guilt by Association’ policy, an Orwellian law that allows for the capture and torture of a suspect’s immediate family members. The law even provides for the conviction of the family of a deceased conscript.(30) Parents of deserters may be charged in the place of the suspect or fined 50,000 nafka (US$ 3,300); the fine for the conscript, if he is located, is much higher.(31) Families unable to afford such fines are jailed and have their property confiscated. In some instances, the evader’s jail sentence is served by one or several family members.(32)

This widespread arbitrary detention places a growing burden on the overcrowded prison system.  Occasionally, inmates are even locked in shipping containers, with no water or sanitation facilities.(33) Without proper building codes, the temperature inside the cells rises to 40 degrees Celsius during the day and falls to freezing at night. Food is strictly rationed. On some days prisoners receive no food at all, other days only a piece of toast or a biscuit. Inmates face reduced life expectancy and increased risk of infections. Torture wounds are often left untreated as additional punishment.(34) Given such abuses, it is not surprising that so many take their lives into their own hands by attempting to flee the country.(35) But for those who are unlucky enough to be caught before reaching freedom, the nightmare continues. 

Target practice

The Government strictly controls the movement of its citizens within the country. Even active military conscripts face arrest if they travel outside of their designated permit area.(36) By charging exorbitant exit visa fees, the Eritrean Government limits migration for all but the wealthiest citizens.(37) The border regions, particularly those with Ethiopia and Sudan, are especially dangerous territory. Guards are ordered to shoot anyone attempting to escape the country.(38) Despite the risks, many Eritreans continue to flee the country in search of a better life.

The danger does not, however, pass once Eritreans have successfully escaped their country. If undocumented Eritreans are discovered in neighbouring countries, they are arrested and deported.  Many still claim that foreign detainment is paradise compared to the torturous practices they regularly experience at home.(39) Eritrean refugees deported from Libya and Germany are arrested, tortured, and even killed upon arrival back in Eritrea.(40) As recently as 2011, Sudan forcefully repatriated over 300 Eritreans while refusing to inquire after their refugee status.(41) Members of the Eritrean Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community face the additional risk of imprisonment or execution for suspected same-sex relations.(42) Even those with the most tenuous connections to the LGBT community are at risk of suspicion.(43)

Vision restored: The world’s response to abuses in Eritrea

Eritrea’s ‘Guilt by Association’ policy has been in place for decades, with little action by the international community. With a growing number of Eritrean refugees in countries such as Israel and Sudan, however, Eritrea is now at the forefront of the UN agenda. In early-2012, the UNHRC called on Eritrea to reform its practices against political dissenters.(44) The Council ordered that the Government of Eritrea abandon its forced conscription policy, stop torturing asylum seekers, and cease the criminalisation of draft evaders.(45)

Eritrea’s contributions to Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab), the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organisation operating out of Somalia, add to the UN’s suspicion.(46) In 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its support of such groups. Despite its demonstrated disapproval of the Eritrean Government's links to al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group discovered that Eritrea continues to support the organisation by sending funds of up to US$ 80,000 to al-Shabaab associates in Nairobi, Kenya.(47) As a result of these overt violations, the UN ordered Eritrea to undergo the scrutiny of a Special Rapporteur.(48) Though there is widespread support for a Special Rapporteur within the UN community, the responsibility for issuing visas and permitting access into Eritrea rests upon the shoulders of the Eritrean Government. Given its history and denial of any violations, Eritrea is unlikely to cooperate with the UN directive.(49)

Concluding thoughts

It is disturbingly evident that influential countries across the globe have turned a blind eye to the recurring human rights violations taking place in this historically challenging region. African nations should take a leadership role in denouncing such state crimes, while also moving towards peaceful democracy on the continent. Without acknowledging the atrocities taking place in Eritrea and accepting the challenge of advocating reform, African nations will never be able to achieve these goals. Additionally, if host countries hope to create any sustainable solution to the burden of the refugee problem, they must work toward addressing the root of the issue – the Afewerki Government. The dream of freedom shared by Eritreans who heroically fought for independence has been shattered by the reality of life under the Afewerki regime. As the Arab Spring continues to spread its influence, Eritrean officials may find that, without reforms, they face the wrath of the international community and their own citizens.   


(1) Contact Ishan Asokan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) ‘The saga of the Eritrean refugees and the human smugglers’, International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, 20 February 2012, http://assenna.com.
(3) Beals, G., ‘Gebre’s story: An Eritrean refugee’s African odyssey’, The United Nations Refugee Agency, 4 May 2012, http://www.unhcr.org.
(4) ‘UN Human Rights Council: Eritrea, Belarus told to end abuses’, Human Rights Watch, 6 July 2012, http://www.hrw.org
(5) ‘Ten long years: A briefing on Eritrea’s missing political prisoners’, Human Rights Watch, September 2011, http://www.hrw.org.
(6) Mallinson, T., ‘Eritrea’s disappeared journalists, ten years later’, Free African Media, 26 September 2011, http://freeafricanmedia.com.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Pool, D., 2001. From guerillas to Government: The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Ohio University Press: Ohio.
(10) ‘Mr. Mahmoud Sherifo to Tsegenai weekly newspaper: Responsibility we were given by the National Assembly was snatched’, Tsegenai Weekly Newspaper, 16 April 2001, http://www.awate.com
(11) Cobb, C., ‘Paper trail that put Eritrea’s dissidents in jail’, All Africa, 21 September 2001,
(12) ‘2010 human rights report: Eritrea’, United States Department of State, 8 April 2011, http://www.state.gov.
(13) Rowan, D., ‘Eritrea: Two students die in Government clampdown’, International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), 24 August 2001, http://www.wsws.org.   
(14) Ibid.
(15) ‘Eritrea: The world’s biggest prison’, The Guardian, 16 April 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk
(16) Rowe, Z., ‘Eritrea’s not so special court’, International Institute for Justice and Development, 11 August 2011, http://iijd.org
(17) McCrummen, S., ‘As thousands flee regime, Eritrea would go it alone’, The Washington Post, 14 December 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com
(18) Ibid.
(19) ‘Country data report for Eritrea, 1996-2011: Worldwide governance indicators’, The World Bank Group, 2010, http://info.worldbank.org
(20) "Unrecognised religion" includes all religions except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea. All others are required to apply for legitimacy under Eritrean law. 
(21) Riley, J., ‘Eritrean Christian dies for refusing to renounce faith’, Christian Post Reporter, 27 February 2007, http://www.christianpost.com
(22) Ibid.
(23) ‘2010 human rights report: Eritrea’, United States Department of State, 8 April 2011, http://www.state.gov
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘Proclamation on national service’, No. 82/1995, 23 October 1995.
(26) Rice, X., ‘Eritrea “like a giant prison,” claims human rights group’, The Guardian, 16 April 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk
(27) Kibreab, G., 2009. Forced labour in Eritrea. Journal of Modern African Studies, 47(1), pp. 41-72.
(28) Hagdu, M., ‘Stories from underground prison in Eritrea: Torture, madness, slave labour, death and a father searching for his son (life under PFDJ)’, Asmarino Independent, 1 March 2010, http://asmarino.com
(29) Ibid.
(30) ‘2012 trafficking in persons report: Eritrea’, United States Department of State, 19 June 2012, http://www.unhcr.org
(31) ‘World report 2012: Eritrea: Arbitrary detention’, Human Rights Watch, 2012, http://www.hrw.org
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) ‘Torture in Eritrea’, Arizona State University, 2006, http://www.west.asu.edu
(35) Copnall, J., ‘Eritrea: The land its citizens want to forget’, BBC News, 21 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(36) ‘Service for life’, Human Rights Watch, April 2009, http://www.hrw.org
(37) Mekonnen, D., ‘From Sawa to the Sinai desert: The Eritrean tragedy of human trafficking’, Asmarino Independent, 23 May 2012, http://asmarino.com.
(38) Brinkley, J., ‘Eritrea, the most repressive nation on earth’, SF Gate, 29 April 2012, http://www.sfgate.com
(39) Morag, G., ‘Eritreans: US, save us from deportation’, Ynetnews, 29 June 2012, http://www.ynetnews.com
(40) ‘Eritrea annual report 2011: The state of the world’s human rights’, Amnesty International, 2011,
(41) ‘Sudan: End mass summary deportations of Eritreans’, Aid News, 25 October 2011, http://aidnews.org
(42) Ibid.
(43) Ottosson, D., ‘State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of laws prohibiting same sex activity between consenting adults’, International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), 2007, http://ilga.org.
(44) Hartman, B., ‘UN human rights chief accuses Eritrea of rights abuses’, The Jerusalem Post, 20 June 2012, http://www.jpost.com.
(45) Ibid.
(46) Clarke, J., ‘Eritrea rejects UN report as it backs Somali rebels’, Reuters, 16 March 2010, http://uk.reuters.com.
(47) ‘Eritrea denies sending arms to al-Shabab’, Al Jazeera, 2 November 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com
(48) ‘Special rapporteur on Eritrea: The cause and the likely outcome’, Ethiopian Review, 14 July 2012, http://www.ethiopianreview.com
(49) ‘Report of the working group on the universal periodic review: Eritrea addendum’, UN Human Rights Council, 10 March 2010, http://www2.ohchr.org.


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