UN experts demand Eritrea release journalist jailed for 20 years

Rights experts fear Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, detained in a September 2001 purge, may no longer be alive.

United Nations rights experts have demanded that Asmara immediately release a Swedish-Eritrean journalist held without charge and largely incommunicado for two decades, voicing fear he may no longer be alive.

Dawit Isaak was among a group of some two dozen senior cabinet ministers, members of parliament and independent journalists who were seized in what was described as a draconian purge in September 2001.

The government of Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki says those arrested were a threat to national security.

“To this day, Dawit Isaak has never been charged with a crime, spent a day in court or spoken to his lawyer,” Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The level to which the Eritrean government is ignoring Mr Isaak’s basic, fundamental human rights is appalling. He must be released at once.”

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says he and his colleagues detained at the same time are now the longest-held journalists in the world.

‘We fear for his life’

Lawlor pointed out that during the first years Isaak was detained, information was provided about him often being taken to hospital.

“Now we receive no news, and that’s worse. We fear for his life,” she said.

“At an absolute minimum, Eritrea must immediately present evidence that he is alive and well.”

The UN’s top expert on the rights situation in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, also said in the joint statement that “the enforced disappearance of Mr Isaak for almost two decades is extremely concerning”.

Asmara, he said, “has not confirmed his whereabouts or provided any solid evidence about his state of health in all these years. It has denied torture allegations but has not allowed anyone to visit Mr Isaak”.

The experts, who are appointed by the UN but do not speak on its behalf, said a credible source had indicated Isaak was still alive in September 2020, marking the first sign of life in seven years.

The 56-year-old dual national is reportedly being held in the infamous Eiraeiro prison, where torture is allegedly common, according to the statement endorsed by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and the UN experts on the right to health and on extrajudicial executions.

Isaak had fled to Sweden in 1987 during Eritrea’s struggle against Ethiopia, which eventually led to independence in 1993. He returned in 2001 to help shape the media landscape.

But he was arrested on September 23 that year, shortly after the Eritrean newspaper he founded, Setit, published articles demanding political reforms.

Lawlor, who documents cases of rights defenders held in long-term detention worldwide, said she had “rarely witnessed such a disregard for human life”.

“Locking up human rights defenders for long periods of time may feel like a guarantee against internal scrutiny,” she said. “But we have not forgotten.”