African Commission urges Eritrea to free prisoners

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afrol News, 7 May - The African Commission of Human Rights, which recently met in Pretoria, South Africa, has asked Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki to intervene in the arrest of 11 senior members of the ruling party. The 11, held incommunicado at an unknown place since 19 September 2001, had criticised government policy. 

The Commission, part of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), on Friday sent a letter to the Eritrean President, reacting to information about 11 Eritreans who "are being held incommunicado and without charge since September 2001 in violation of the Africa Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights for alleged crimes against the security and sovereignty of the State of Eritrea."

The appeal further stated the Commission was "seriously concerned" about this situation. The Chairman of the Commission, Kamel Rezag-Bara, urged President Afewerki "to intervene in the matter." 

In May 2001, 15 leading members of the Eritrean governing party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), wrote an open letter to all party members criticising the government for acting in an "illegal and unconstitutional" manner. The letter also called for a "peaceful, legal and democratic transition to a truly constitutional government."

The letter came as a response to the long-time undermining of internal democracy in the party. As its Central Council and Executive Committee virtually has stopped meeting, all decisions were taken by the party's chairman. They further reacted to the fact that "the interim government, which was not to continue more than four years, has now been in power for eight years," something that had been achieved by unconstitutional manners.

On 18 and 19 September, 11 of the 15 signing PFDJ members were arrested in Eritrea. The remaining four went into exile. The detained reportedly have not been given access to their families or lawyers since that time and there are growing concerns about their safety. Also on 19 September, the Eritrean government imposed a ban on the country's private press for ''not abiding by the press law''. 

The issue of the 11 detained Eritreans had been brought to the attention of the African Commission by Mussie Ephrem, a Swedish citizen of Eritrean origin, and his lawyer, filing the official complaint. In Pretoria, Ephrem told afrol News he was satisfied with the Commission's appeal to President Afewerki. Ephrem had also been a driving force behind the European Union's protest against the worsening of the human rights situation in Eritrea.

In a "communication" to the Commission, dated 26 November 2001, Ephrem's lawyer expressed her concern "that those arrested may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of their political opinions." Ephrem urged the Commission to "take all measures it finds appropriate." 

Sources: Based on African Commission, Mussie Ephrem and afrol archives

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