Activists call for reform after peace deal with Ethiopia

On 9th July 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki signed a historic declaration to end the "state of war" which has long seen the repression of basic human rights and freedoms in Eritrea. Afwerki who has been in power since 1993 after leading Eritrea into independence from Ethiopia, had his grip on power strengthened when a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998, leading to massive restrictions on civil rights and freedoms.

Although the country passed a new constitution in 1997 which guarantees civil rights and freedoms, it was shelved the following year after the outbreak of the border war with Ethiopia. To date, the country does not have an opposition party, and has never held a national election. According to critics, the president has held unlimited powers, comparing him to a supreme leader who is more powerful than the parliament or ruling party.

Following the latest developments with Ethiopia, many hope that Eritreans will finally enjoy civil rights and freedoms that have for a long time been elusive. 

Commending the signing of the declaration by both presidents, Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said;

“The end of hostilities with Ethiopia is a joyous moment for Eritreans, but it must be followed by tangible reforms that make a real difference in the daily lives of the people and put an end to decades of repression in the country…All individuals must be allowed to freely express themselves - on the streets and in the media, including social media, without fear of being victimized by the authorities. All those detained solely for exercising their human rights, including speaking out against the government, must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Many citizens hope among other things, that the improving relationship with Ethiopia will end the indefinite conscription of recruits to the National Service - a compulsory but indefinite program for all citizens aged between 18 to 50 years old, that includes military service. Introduced in 1995, it has been likened to modern day slavery by human rights actors.

One anonymous source said;

“I have been in service for the last 20 years and I am proud of the role I played…but hopefully we will now be friends with our Ethiopian brothers, rather than enemies, and I hope to move on with my life.”

Expression

In light of thawing relations with Ethiopia, One Day SEYOUM, an organisation seeking the release of imprisoned journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, started a viral #QuestionsForIsaias campaign on Twitter, in which users posed questions to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki about his 25-year dictatorship.

Seyoum Tsehaye, a freelance photojournalist and his colleagues were arrested on 18th September 2001 in Asmara for demanding democracy in Eritrea. He has been in detention for 17 years now, without charge, trial or reason for detention. No one, including their families, have been allowed to visit them. Seyoum Tsehaye was known to be very critical of the government.

Association

Despite the anticipated positive developments on human rights following the signing of the peace deal, restrictions on civil rights continue to be reported. On 10th August 2018, BBC reported that Eritrean authorities were on the hunt for Pentecostal Christians who attended an informal sermon by Ethiopian preacher Surafiel Demssie. Eritrea has four official religions, Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Evangelical-Lutheran church of Eritrea; membership to any other religious group is illegal. Several people who attended the sermon were arrested by the authorities said to have been the National Security Agency. Those arrested have not been presented before a court of law at the time of writing this update. It is reported that prisoners of conscience are not usually presented before a court of law in the country.

On 18th July 2018, the government released 35 detainees held for belonging to unregistered Christian denominations.