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Political crackdown (2001-2002)

The border conflict, which led to between 70,000 and 100,000 deaths and the displacement of over one million people, had wider political ramifications. In Ethiopia critics of the Prime Minister asked why Ethiopian troops did not advance further into Eritrea; while in Eritrea there was criticism of how the war was handled by the President.

Criticism within the PFDJ surfaced among top-ranking officials when President Afwerki refused the US-Rwanda mediation proposal in 1998. It intensified after Eritrean troops lost control of Badme and the Government was subsequently compelled to sign the Algiers Peace Agreement. Dissenters questioned President Afwerki’s leadership in closed sessions of the PFDJ Executive Council in January and August 2000. In October 2000, a group of 13 Eritrean prominent figures in the PFDJ sent a letter to President Afwerki to ask for more transparency in Eritrean institutions and greater freedom of expression. Initially meant to be private, the letter was leaked to the media and came to be known as the “Berlin Manifesto”, from the name of the city where it had been drafted.

Following the September 2000 session of the National Assembly, a commission headed by the Minister of Local Government, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, was set up to prepare guidelines for recognising political parties that would participate in the national elections scheduled for December 2001. However, President Afwerki refused to approve the draft guidelines presented to him. After Mr. Sherifo leaked them to the media in January 2001, he was removed from his post. He then joined a group of 15 officials who, in May 2001, published an open letter to PFDJ members.

The signatories of the letter, known as the “G-15”, were all dignitaries and members of the Executive Council and the Central Council of the PFDJ. Besides Mr. Sherifo, they consisted of Mr. Haile Woldensae, Mr. Mesfin Hagos, Major General Ogbe Abrha, Mr. Hamid Himid, Mr. Saleh Kekya, Brigadier General Estifanos Seyoum, Major General Berhane Ghebre Eghzabiher, Ms. Astier Feshatsion, Mr. Mohammed Berhan Blata, Mr. Petros Solomon, Mr. Germano Nati, Mr. Beraki Ghebreslassie, Mr. Adhanom Ghebremariam, and Mr. Haile Menkerios.

In their letter, the members of the G-15 called for “peaceful and democratic dialogue” and “rule of law and justice.” They diagnosed Eritrea as in “crisis” and identified the heart of the problem in the way President Afwerki had ruled the country, which, according to them, was “illegal and unconstitutional”. They pointed out that “instead of taking action to correct its mistakes, the Government [had] tried to cover them up and silence criticism by threats creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.” To address this situation, they called for the President to govern “by the constitution and the law” and the legislature should counter-balance the Executive. They asked for elections to take place and for the PFDJ to function in a more transparent and participatory manner. They also called for the impartiality of mass media “to encourage the protection of human rights”; for freedom of expression and political discourse; freedom of action of NGOs; the dismantling of the Special Court; the independence of the Judiciary; and for individuals who had been detained for long periods of time without trial to be brought before a judge.

The wave of protest against President Afwerki’s management of power reached another peak in July and August 2001. In July, the International Eritrean Studies Association organised a conference in Asmara during which the President of the High Court, Mr. Teame Beyene, called for the dissolution of the Special Court which he considered “illegal and unconstitutional.” He also complained about interference of the Executive Branch in judicial proceedings. At the beginning of August, he accepted the habeas corpus petition regarding Mr. Semere Kesete, the President of the University of Asmara Student Union (UASU) who had been arrested on 31 July 2001 after criticising the attempt of the Government to impose a compulsory “summer work programme” with inadequate pay on students. Mr. Kesete was held incommunicado for several days before being brought to the High Court. The Court gave the Police twenty-four hours to formally present its charges or Mr Kesete would be released.

University students were called to a meeting in Asmara stadium where they were rounded up by the Army. Once all students were gathered in the stadium, they were trucked to Wi’a and Gelalo, military training camps in the desert, where they were kept for several months and intimidated (several students died). Mr. Kesete was imprisoned without charge and spent two years in solitary confinement before managing to escape and flee Eritrea. Mr. Beyene was dismissed from his post. As an additional measure to prevent further protests, the University of Asmara – the only one in the country – was closed down in 2006.

In early 2001 President Afwerki set up a security committee, headed by the then Minister of Information, Mr. Naizghi Kiflu,68 to investigate political crimes of “subnationalism” and “defeatism”. Mr. Kiflu ordered the shutdown of all independent publications. Subsequently, the editors in chief and journalists of the eight privately owned newspapers, created after the promulgation of a national press code in 1996, were arrested and imprisoned. In the early hours of 18 and 19 September 2001, eleven members of the G-15 were arrested and detained incommunicado without any formal charges. Their whereabouts remain unknown to date.

Mr. Mesfin Hagos, Mr. Adhanom Gebremariam and Mr. Haile Menkerios were abroad on the day of the arrests and escaped the crackdown, while one of the initial signatories who was in Eritrea was not arrested. During those days, numerous civil servants, military commanders, businessmen, relatives of the G-15 and other persons perceived as independent or critical of President Afwerki were also arrested. Some have been subjected to enforced disappeared since that time.

In February 2002, during a speech to the National Assembly, President Afwerki accused the reformists of “committing treason by abandoning the very values and principles the Eritrean people fought for”. The Assembly – now purged and under his control – officially approved the arrests and the closing of newspapers it accused of being “foreign-funded” and “engaged in defamation and rumour-mongering”. The Assembly also adopted a law on elections, which confirmed the ban on political parties other than the PFDJ. At the end of February 2002, President Afwerki appointed a five-person commission to organise the long awaited national elections – but to this day elections have not taken place.

On 13 April 2002, after two years of reviewing submissions by both countries, the joint Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) announced its decision regarding the conflicting claims over territory between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Among a number of decisions, it awarded the disputed village of Badme, which had been administered by Ethiopia and where the 1998-2000 conflict began, to Eritrea. Ethiopia rejected this decision and refused to cooperate with the EEBC to physically demarcate the border. Eritrea accepted the decision and refused to reopen negotiations. This impasse led to what has been referred to by Eritrea as a “no war, no peace” situation between the two countries and the occupation of a part of its sovereign territory.

During this period, the Eritrean authorities continued to suppress people or groups accused of being manipulated by foreign interests. In April 2002, a registration requirement was imposed on all religious groups with the exception of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Christian Church. None of the registration requests were approved and many members of these un-recognised religions and churches have been arrested and detained over the years.

In addition, in May 2002, the Eritrean Government introduced the “Warsai Yikealo Development Campaign” (WYDC). The WYDC revisited the two former Proclamations on national service and extended national service indefinitely. The Eritrean government also halted the demobilisation process initiated in 2000 after signing the Algiers Peace Agreement, this despite the fact that a demobilisation program funded by the World Bank had been set up to progressively demobilise, reinsert and reintegrate 200,000 former combatants. In 2003, the Government decided to increase the duration of secondary education by one year and to compulsorily require all final year (12th grade) students to the “Warsai Yikealo Secondary School and National Vocational Training Centre" located at Sawa military camp, where they undertake military training, finalise their secondary education, and take their final exam.

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Page last modified: 29-06-2015 20:56:40 ZULU