- Human rights organisations are concerned about the destiny of 57 members of the Christian sect Jehovah's Witnesses, including 90-year-old man, that were arrested by Eritrean police four weeks ago. They are believed to be held in one of Eritrea's many secret detention centres, where torture is common.
On 24 January, Eritrean police arrested 38 members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religion who were holding a religious service in a private home in the capital, Asmara. Ten were released without charge but 28 remain in custody, including children and a 90-year-old man.
The whereabouts of the 28 are not known, but they are believed to be held in one of Eritrea's many secret detention centres. The Eritrean authorities have not publicly acknowledged the arrests or given any reason for them.
The UK branch of the human rights group Amnesty International now fears the 28 "could be tortured or ill-treated to force them to abandon their faith, and that those of conscription age (18-40 years) could be forced into military service and tortured if, in accordance with the principles of their faith, they refuse."
The Eritrean Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion. However, Jehovah's Witnesses in Eritrea - who number about 1,600 - have frequently been arrested on account of their faith's principle of refusing military service, according to a US government report.
In March 2002, Jehovah's Witnesses, along with at least 12 minority Christian sects, was prohibited from practising their religion and was ordered to register with the Department of Religious Affairs. None of these faiths has been granted a permit so far and some have refused on principle to comply with the far-reaching order to disclose details of their membership, foreign funding and activities.
Over 330 members of these religious groups who were arrested in 2003 are detained incommunicado in secret prisons without charge or trial, including scores of conscripts. According to Amnesty, "many have been tortured or ill-treated in attempts to force them to abandon their faith."
- Former detainees at a secret 8000-inmate prison on the main Dahlak Island in the Red Sea have recently given testimony that inmates found praying have been tortured, and that bibles and religious audio-cassettes have been burned, the human rights group says.
Amnesty says it has information that three Jehovah's Witnesses "have been detained incommunicado in Sawa military training centre in western Eritrea since 1994, without charge or trial, for refusing to bear arms."
National service is compulsory for all men and women aged 18 to 40, with no observance of the internationally-recognised right to conscientious objection. It is supposed to consist of six months' military service, and 12 months non-military duties. In practice, since the Ethiopian war (1998-2000), national service has generally turned into indefinite military service.
The US State Department recently criticised the Eritrean government for limiting the rights to religious freedom, drawing special attention to what it said to be documented harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses. Also the US government report highlighted the right of the sect to object to military services for reasons of religious consciousness.
The Eritrean government has protested the conclusions of the US State Department. In a letter to the State Department sent last week, Eritrean Ambassador to the US, Girma Asmerom, said the US report was "full of sweeping statements based on unsubstantiated facts and sources." He added that the "realities of social and religious harmony that exists in Eritrea have been seriously distorted" in the report.
Regarding registration, all religions were "viewed equally under the law and therefore are all required to abide by the legal guidelines set forth in the country, including registration and transparent and accountable declaration of funding sources," the Eritrean Embassy in Washington says. Further, all Eritreans had the duty to protect the sovereignty of their country.
Members of Jehovah's Witnesses had lost their rights to trade or been dismissed from government offices, the Embassy acknowledged. However, "members of the Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to recognise the country, protect its sovereignty and accept citizenship willingly forfeit their rights to these privileges."
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