There was jubilation among Eritreans when Eritrea formally gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody 30-year war. Sixteen years later the dreams that the independent state would be democratic and rights-adhering lie in tatters. Eritrea has become one of the most closed and repressive states in the world. Thousands of political prisoners are detained in prisons and underground cells; there is no independent civil society; all independent media outlets have been shut down; the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church is in incommunicado detention; and evangelical Christians are rounded up and tortured on a regular basis.
This is the reality of life in today’s Eritrea, according to a report by Human Rights Watch released on Thursday (April 16). In a statement, Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said, "Eritrea's government is turning the country into a giant prison." According to the 95-page report, arbitrary arrest and detention, brutal torture, forced labour, appallingly inhuman conditions in detention, rigid restrictions on freedom of movement and expression, and religious persecution of all faith groups characterize the government of President Isayas Afewerki.
Over the several years, Eritrea has become the worst persecutor of Christians in Africa and ranks among the most religiously repressive countries in the world. According to Compass Direct, by late 2008 nearly 3,000 Christians had been incarcerated for their faith by Eritrean authorities. Not one has ever been charged with a crime or brought to court.
Yet, as Human Rights Watch reports, it is not just evangelical Christians who are being persecuted. In the military, “adherents of all faiths face problems.”
As one female Christian jailed for reading the Bible in Sawa camp said, “Everyone, even the Orthodox and the Muslims, are not allowed to worship. Only politics is allowed.” A soldier also claimed that no praying of any kind was permitted in the military—whether one was a follower of a Christian faith or Muslim (page 62)
The Human Rights report also documents how torture is routine in Eritrea, both for those detained in prisons and as punishment for those in military service (which includes many Christians). As I was reading through the various torture methods reportedly used by authorities (pages 30-34) and appalling conditions of the prisons (pages 34-38), I was reminded how, at one of our conferences, an Eritrean brother demonstrated how he had been tortured using the “helicopter.” This according to the report is a method of torture where the victim’s hands and feet are tied together behind the back, sometimes opposite limbs, i.e. left hand to right foot, and the victim is left face down, often outside in the hot sun. As for the conditions in the prison, this is how Human Rights Watch describes then:
Apart from torture and routine punishment, detainees in Eritrea’s huge network of prisons endure terrible conditions, forced labor, and lethal starvation. With the exception of Ethiopian prisoners of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross is not permitted to visit Eritrea’s military or civilian detention facilities. The government appears completely unconcerned about detention conditions and the fate of the people in its custody. Deaths in custody are common. Prison guards are often demoralized and appalled by what they are asked to do—some of them reportedly escape along with the inmates.
Horrendous descriptions of conditions in many of Eritrea’s different prisons have been widely documented by various nongovernmental organizations in recent years. Many detainees are kept in metal shipping containers or in underground pits in overcrowded and dangerously hot conditions for months at a time. (pages 35-36)
This is life for thousands of our brothers and sisters today. Won’t you join us in praying for them today? Pray, too, as The Voice of the Martyrs seeks to provide practical assistance to the families of those in detention and to raise a voice on behalf of these prisoners of faith whose voice is barely heard in today’s world. Pray that those who hear our shortwave radio broadcasts in Eritrea will have their faith strengthened.
You can download or read the full HRW report by clicking here.