Day of the Imprisoned Writer Cases 2015: Amanuel Asrat (Eritrea)
02 Nov 2015
This year marks the 34th annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an international day that recognises writers who have suffered persecution as a result of exercising their right to freedom of expression. This is one of the five cases that PEN has chosen to highlight this year:
Award-winning Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, meaning The Times), Amanuel Asrat, was arrested at his home on the morning of 23 September 2001 amid a crackdown on state and private media. It is believed that he is being held without charges or trial. The limited information available suggests that Asrat is detained in the maximum security prison, Eiraeiro, north of Asmara. PEN International believes that Asrat’s detention is politically motivated and is an attempt by the Eritrean government to stifle critical voices, including comment on its conflict with Ethiopia.
In July 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. As part of this crackdown, Amanuel Asrat was arrested on 23 September 2001; on the same day the editors of all privately-owned newspapers were also arrested. It is believed that 11 of these journalists are still detained.
The authorities have reportedly claimed that the journalists have been sent to carry out their national service and that the detentions were necessary for the preservation of national unity or due to newspaper’s lack of compliance with media licenses. In April 2003, President Isaias Afewerki told Radio France Internationale that the journalists listed as arrested or missing had been bribed by forces opposed to the government to cause division. He stated, ‘You cannot say a spy is a journalist…In the middle of the war we had to check them. We had to say enough is enough’. In a 2004 interview, President Afewerki commented that there had never been any independent media in Eritrea, only journalists in the pay of the CIA. Nevertheless, PEN International believes that these arrests have been used in order to silence criticism of the Eritrean government.
Fourteen years later, the situation of Asrat and the other prisoners it is still unclearI It is unknown whether charges have been brought against them and even if any trial has taken place. There are severe health concerns as the detainees are believed to have been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, including lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of four journalists in custody. Asrat is believed to be among the few surviving journalists, detained in the maximum security prison, Eiraeiro, north of Asmara.
For International Translation Day on 30 September 2015 PEN members from around the world translated ኣበሳ ኲናት (The Scourge of War) into Afrikaans, Bangla, Catalan, Croatian, Dutch, English, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Occitan, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Tamazight and Tigrinya. Alongside Raif Badawi and Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, Asrat also featured as an ‘Empty Chair’ in PEN International’s 81st Congress in Quebec City.
Amanuel Asrat is credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s. Along with two friends, he created a literary club called ቍርሲ ቀዳም ኣብ ጠዓሞት (Saturday’s Supper) in 2001. This club set a precedent for the emergence of similar literary clubs in all major Eritrean towns. Asrat is also a well-known poet and songwriter. His writings dealt with subjects ranging from the daily life of the underprivileged to war and peace topics. His work provided a negative insight towards conflict, an uncommon approach among popular Eritrean wartime poetry.
His award-winning poem ኣበሳ ኲናት (“The Scourge of War”) alluded to the then ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia, describing the blood shed by two brothers. In the summer of 1999, the poem was awarded a prize by the National Holidays Coordinating Committee, run by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice which organises official celebrations, commemorations and festivals around the country. The prize given is regarded as one of the most prestigious in Eritrea in terms of literary and artistic awards. The committee outlined the uniqueness of Asrat’s poem for standing sharply against war.
The newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, meaning The Times) where Asrat worked, had become the leading literary newspaper in the country and was run by a circle of critics who helped shape the cultural landscape of the country. His work in the newspaper was well-known as Asrat was the most popular art critic of his time in the country.
In July 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. On 18 September 2001, 15 dissident members of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (which is the current ruling party in Eritrean government) published an open letter where Afwerki’s abuse of power was denounced and presented his actions as “illegal and unconstitutional”. Following this publication, all dissidents were detained and private newspapers were banned. These independent newspapers had published interviews and articles related to the open letter. There is little official information of their whereabouts and well-being. Indeed, in a country where prison conditions are among the most severe – prisoners are regularly held in the desert in metal shipping containers or underground cells – there are grave concerns for their well-being. Eritrean detainees are systematically ill-treated and subjected to torture, for the purposes of punishment, interrogation and coercion. It is widely believed that at least four (and probably nine) of these journalists have died in custody. Since the closure of the independent press the government controls and runs all news outlets in the country through the Ministry of Information.
The current situation in Eritrea with regards to freedom of expression continues to be disheartening. Eritrea has become one of the world’s worst offenders for human rights abuses over the last decade, ranking third in terms of journalists imprisoned according to Committee to Protect Journalists – after China and Iran. According to PEN International’s records, at least 25 journalists, writers and politicians are in prison without due process for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
In response to these conditions, Eritrean journalists in exile set up PEN Eritrea in order to connect this inaccessible country and the outside world, and to campaign on behalf of the country’s imprisoned journalists, many of whom have been jailed for more than a decade without contact with their families.
Please send appeals:
- Demanding that the fate of all detained journalists be immediately clarified by the Eritrean authorities and that those still alive should be released immediately and unconditionally.
- Protesting the detention of poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat on politically motivated grounds and without known charges or trial since 2001.
- Expressing concern for Asrat’s health as detainees are believed to have suffered ill treatment, probably torture and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of four journalists in;
His Excellency, Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President,
Fax: + 2911 125123
Minister of Justice
Hon. Minister of Justice Fawzia Hashim
Fax: + 291 1 126422
Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Eritrea in your country if possible. Details of some Eritrean embassies can be found here.
For further details please contact Ann Harrison, PEN International, Koops Mil, 162-164 Abbey Street, London SE1 2AN Tel: +44 (0) 207 405 0338 Fax +44 (0) 207 405 0339 email: firstname.lastname@example.org