Will It Take 10,000 Days in Prison for Europe to Hold Eritrea to Account?

06/02/2015 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
KHALED FAZAA via Getty Images

Dawit Isaak, a writer and journalist with dual Swedish and Eritrean nationality, is spending his 5,000th day in prison today. The authorities of Eritrea, a small country of Africa under a despotic regime, have never tried or sentenced him and refuse to say where he is held. They call him a criminal but they are the criminals. They are breaking their own laws, as well as the African and international conventions Eritrea has pledged to respect.

Isaak is far from alone. Eritrea's paranoid rulers have thousands of prisoners. They deny their people the right to express themselves, to vote, to build their own future. Tens of thousands flee abroad despite the danger of falling victim to the border guard shoot-to-kill policy, being abducted, tortured or blackmailed, or drowning in the Mediterranean.

What is Europe's response? The European Union is considering tripling Asmara's aid budget in the hope that fewer will want to leave the country. But the regime's policies for years have clearly shown it does not care about its people's welfare. The EU should not reward a government that jails thousands, holds no elections, tolerates no free press and imposes an open-ended national service with starvation wages described as slavery by those who manage to flee.

President Isaias Afeworki and his aides despise the international community. They ignore letters from the African Union. They deny UN investigators entry. They refuse to let the International Red Cross leave the capital, let alone see Isaak or other prisoners. Although Isaak is an EU citizen, they refuse to let Swedish and EU diplomats see him. They even deny Isaak the right to family visits.

The European Union and Sweden must face up to the fact that this regime just plays for time without regard for human life and basic human values. Until now the international community has naively played along but, 14 years after the crackdown that put Isaak and so many others behind bars, it is time to stop.

Negotiations are good as a rule but other methods should be tried after 14 years. In one recent example, a group of jurists brought a complaint against President Afeworki and his aides in Sweden, accusing them of torture, enforced disappearance and crimes against humanity in the case of Dawit Isaak. After examining the complaint, Sweden's prosecutor-general said he has reason to believe that what is being done to Isaak does amount to crimes against humanity, that responsibility lays with the highest political level, that the case could be tried in Sweden and that there are grounds for opening an investigation.

But in the end he decided not to. Why? Because he checked with Sweden's foreign ministry and was told that negotiations were more likely to end the crimes against Isaak and get him out of jail. After 5,000 days? What about 7,000 days? Or 10,000?

Should this regime be given more money without demanding answers to all the questions about the human rights situation in Eritrea, a situation that is the driving force behind the mass exodus of Eritreans? More assistance will just prop up the regime and allow it to channel more money to the military.

The regime's agents and supporters even target its opponents in the Eritrean diaspora. Eritrean journalists who have fled to Sudan or Uganda live in fear of Eritrea's security agents. Eritrean democracy advocates in Italy and Sweden have been threatened and even beaten up. The regime extorts a 2 percent "voluntary" tax from diaspora Eritreans in return for help with marriage or birth certificates and even threatens retaliation against relatives still in Eritrea. Meanwhile, Europe looks the other way.

Although Canada has no citizen detained in Eritrea (and even has a mining company there), it expelled Eritrea's consul-general because it regarded his tax collection as a threat to the well- being of Canada's Eritrean community. Is the diaspora in Europe different? The Canadian foreign ministry has even warned that paying the 2 percent tax risks breaching the UN Security Council's sanctions against Eritrea. The EU has not. The EU is discussing a big check for Asmara. And tomorrow Isaak will spend his 5,001st day in prison.

Special thanks to RSF Swedish Section.