Eritrea - Government
Eritrea is a one-party state. Eritrea's Government faced formidable challenges following independence. The nation’s constitution was ratified in 1997 but has not been implemented, on grounds that a “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia following the border war from 1998 to 2000 requires continued adherence to special arrangements resembling martial law.
With no constitution, no judicial system, and an education system in shambles, the Eritrean Government was required to build institutions of government from scratch. Currently, the Government of Eritrea exercises strict control of political, social, and economic systems, with nearly no civil liberties allowed. Elections have been postponed repeatedly, and reforms called for in the constitution, ratified in 1997, have yet to take place.
In March 1994, the PGE created a constitutional commission charged with drafting a constitution flexible enough to meet the current needs of a population suffering from 30 years of civil war as well as those of the future, when prospective stability and prosperity would change the political landscape. Commission members traveled throughout the country and to Eritrean communities abroad holding meetings to explain constitutional options to the people and to solicit their input. A new constitution was ratified in 1997 but has not been implemented, and general elections have not been held. The government had announced that Transitional National Assembly elections would take place in December 2001, but those were postponed and new elections have not been rescheduled.
The Eritrean constitution calls for legislative, executive, and judicial branches. According to the constitution, a 150-seat unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, decides internal and external policy, approves the budget, and elects the president of the country. However, the National Assembly has not met since 2002, and many of its members are either in prison or have fled the country. Legislative as well as executive functions are now exercised by President Isaias Afwerki.
The president’s cabinet, the executive branch of the government, has 17 ministers, all appointed by the president. Civilian and military zonal administrators also are appointed by the president. Over the years, the role of the Executive has become predominant. Regional and local administrations were brought under President Afwerki’s control after Mr. Sherifo was ousted from his post of Minister of Local Government and arrested with other members of the G-15 in September 2001.
The judiciary of Eritrea is in disarray and it is composed of a hybrid system of courts and security forces. The drafting of many civilians, including court administrators, defendants, judges, lawyers, and others involved in the legal system, into national service continued to have a significant negative impact on the judiciary. The High Court was reduced from 7 benches to 3, and regional, sub-regional, and village court personnel were reduced by 40 percent in 2002.
The judiciary consists of three court systems: civilian, military, and special courts. A peculiar fact in Eritrea is that prisoners are hardly ever accused of an offense and brought before a court of law - they are just arrested, kept in prison, and released after an arbitrary timespan.
Civilian courts include community courts, sub-regional courts, regional courts, and the High Court, which also serves as an appellate court. Nominally, the judiciary operates independently of both the legislative and executive bodies, with a court system that extends from the village through to the district, provincial, and national levels.
In practice, the independence of the judiciary is limited. In 2001, for example, the president of the High Court was detained after criticizing the government for judicial interference. As of 2014 the Supreme Court remained defunct since the Chief Judge was sacked for political reasons in 2001.
The law and unimplemented constitution provide for the presumption of innocence, for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, and for fair public trial by a court of law, but many detained persons are not brought to trial. The legal system incorporates pre-independence laws of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, revised Ethiopian laws, customary laws, and laws enacted after independence. Sharia law is used in civil cases involving Muslims.
Most citizens only had contact with the legal system through the traditional village courts. Village judges, who were appointed by a panel composed of heads of regional courts, the regional prosecutor, and the regional governor, heard civil cases. Magistrates versed in criminal law heard criminal cases. Local elders adjudicated many local problems -- for example, property disputes and most petty crimes -- according to customary law. The Ministry of Justice also offered training in alternative dispute resolution to handle some civil and petty criminal cases.
The special courts, which deal with high profile cases, operate under the executive branch. The Special Court has jurisdiction over cases involving corruption. It has the power to re-open and adjudicate cases that have already been processed through the regular criminal justice system. This court does not afford the right of counsel or appeal. Judges in the Special Court do not have formal legal training. They are appointed by the Eritrean President and are mostly senior members of the armed forces. Judges serve as prosecutors and may request that individuals involved in given cases present their positions. Most trials in special courts are not open to the public.
The special court system ostensibly was created to reduce a growing backlog in the civilian court system; however, in practice special courts, which banned defense counsel and the right of appeal, allowed the executive branch to mete out punishment without respect for due process. Judges in the special courts were senior military officers, most of whom had little or no legal experience. They based their decisions on ‘conscience’, without reference to the law. There was no limitation on punishment.
The special courts had jurisdiction over many criminal cases, such as capital offenses, felonies, some misdemeanors, cases of tax evasion involving large sums, and cases of embezzlement by senior officials. The office of the Attorney General decided which cases were to be tried by a special court. The Attorney General also allowed special courts to retry civilian court cases, including those decided by the High Court, thereby subjecting defendants to double jeopardy.
Special courts also handled crimes involving corruption, theft, and misuse of government authority allegedly committed by former members of the EPLF during the war for independence. Senior former fighters and members of the PFDJ often were held to a stringent unwritten code of conduct, and violations of this code were handled by special courts outside the normal judicial process. Those accused of violating this circle of trust were arrested and held without formal charge or tried in special courts.
The Military Court has jurisdiction over penal cases brought against members of the armed forces. It also assumes jurisdiction over crimes committed by and against the members of the armed forces. The Military Court is structured in two levels: higher and lower. The jurisdiction of these two levels depends on the seriousness of the offences in question. The higher level of the Military Court is part of the Eritrean High Court. The Military Court does not afford the right of appeal.
Eritrea has six administrative regions (zobatat; sing., zoba): Anseba, Debub, Debubawi K'eyih Bahri, Gash-Barka, Ma'akel, and Semenawi Keyih Bahri. Each of the six administrative regions has its own regional, sub-regional, and village administrations.
The six zobas are administrative only and overlap eight ethnic and cultural areas, which had emerged during the Italian and British colonial periods. The eight ethnic and cultural areas of Eritrea, with their "capital" cities are: Akeleguzay (Dekemhare), Barka (Agordat), Hamasien (Asmara), Sahel (Nakfa), Semhar (Massawa), Senhit (Keren), and Seraye (Mendefera). Seven of the eight ethnic and cultural areas are dominated by one religious group, either Christian or Muslim. Some of these areas have their own languages and many have sub-groups with alliances that pre-date Eritrea's struggle for independence. Many of the movements during the struggle began as local or regional movements.
The re-designation of the areas from eight to six in 1996 drew lines through ethnic groups and religious affiliations, separated ethnic groups administratively, and split up the former provinces in a deliberate effort to destroy the strong affiliations to the provinces, dilute ethnic identities, and ultimately ensure no one group could become too strong. At the time, the GSE explained the restructuring as one based on "economic and geo-climatic homogeneity" and a policy that "takes as its basis national resources, demography infrastructure and the unity of our people."
While the Southern Red Sea became more homogeneous for the Afar, the Northern Red Sea, Anseba, and Gash-Barka zobas became more ethnically diverse. During the division, the GSE also expressed an interest in the resettlement and increased mobility of the population in order to accelerate an inter-ethnic assimilation process. In reality, the new lines largely only added Tigrinya populations into areas which had been predominately occupied by other ethnic groups; many of these groups perceived this "Tigrinyaization" of historically non-Tigrinya regions of the country negatively, as individuals from the Tigrinya groups are believed to have better access to resources and senior government positions in those regions.
National Assembly elections were scheduled for 2001, but the elections were delayed indefinitely by the government and have yet to take place. Although elections have not been held, the president ostensibly serves a five-year term and is limited to serving no more than two terms.
The GSE does not operate a clearly-organized regulatory system; procedures appear to be of haphazard creation, with irregular enforcement. The GSE does not always announce new regulations prior to implementation, and they may be subject to abrupt change. The GSE neither publishes accounts of its decision-making processes nor offers a public comment period for proposed laws or regulations.
Eritrea has a centralized police service that investigates crimes and enforces traffic laws. Eritrea is divided into six police regions. Maekel (meaning “Central”) encompasses Asmara and the surrounding areas. Each district is divided into areas of responsibility and assigned a police station. Maekel District has seven police stations.
Besides the police, there is also military police. Military police are responsible for responding to protests, riots, or other civil disturbances. Although Eritrea has special riot police, military police or actual military units generally respond to anything resembling civil unrest.
Eritrea also has a diplomatic police unit. At one time, this unit provided static police protection at most diplomatic missions in Asmara. In 2011, the unit ceased static protection, however, indicated that they would still provide mobile and foot patrols. This unit is also responsible for the investigation of crimes involving diplomatic property or personnel.
Eritrea also has municipal/administrative police managed by each municipality. These are unarmed police who do not have arrest power and are mainly responsible for administrative issues. They are responsible for visiting building sites to ensure the builder has a permit; verifying that businesses have first aid kits and fire extinguishers; and checking grocery stores to see if they selling expired items. They also regulate street vendors.
The civilian militia has taken on some patrol duties. At night, members patrol their neighborhoods. They are basically peace officers but are sometimes (particularly during large national holidays or events such as the May 24th celebration) specifically instructed to check the documents of pedestrians to ensure they have complied with National Service. The civilian militia also has static posts where they provide coverage to banks, gas depots, government buildings, airport, etc.
In May 2014, in his speech at Independence Day, President Afwerki announced the drafting of a new constitution. He confirmed that decision in an interview granted to Eritrean TV on 31 December 2014, during which he said that a new constitution was being drafted by a committee of experts. Asked about the rationale of drafting a new text while the 1997 Constitution was still awaiting implementation, President Afwerki replied: “After 15 years of government, we, the People of Eritrea, have learned a lot. We needed to use that knowledge to create a more suitable constitution. We do not do this to please any foreign influence or request. We do this intending to leave a document to the coming generations of Eritreans, a document that will help better shape their lives.” The drafting of a new constitution was confirmed by the Eritrean delegations to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and to the 28th session of the Human Rights Council, held in February and March 2015 respectively. Nevertheless, no details on the composition of the committee or on the status of its work have been given.
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