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ICC NOTE: Amnesty reports that Eritrea does not have any visible impovements in persecution against Christians or other relgious minorites since their 2005 report, which they re-released.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

Public Statement

24 May 2006

Eritrea : Independence Day call for a year of urgent human rights improvements

Today on Eritrean Independence Day, Amnesty International is making a new call to Eritrea’s President Issayas Afewerki to make the coming 14th year of Eritrea’s formal independence a year for the implementation of the human rights improvements urgently awaited by the international community, as well as many Eritreans in the country and abroad.

Amnesty International is renewing its appeals to the government to release men and women who are prisoners of conscience detained without charge, trial or any legal status, because of their political opinions or religious beliefs, or because they or their children have evaded military service. Amnesty International is also renewing its calls to the international community — the UN and its specialized agencies, the African Union, the European Union and other countries with specific bilateral ties with Eritrea — to support these appeals in their relations with the Government of Eritrea.

Five of the six women prisoners of conscience for whose unconditional release Amnesty International appealed on Independence Day 2005 are still detained incommunicado and in harsh conditions – Helen Berhane, Aster Fissehatsion, Aster Yohannes, Miriam Hagos and Senait Debessai.

Indeed, virtually all of the prisoners of conscience who were in prison a year ago and for whom Amnesty International and many others have been campaigning are still in prison, some for over a decade now. Whether held in official civilian or military prisons or secret prisons, they are still denied family visits. Not a single one has been charged or brought to court. Refusal of medical treatment is still the norm. The pattern of torture and cruel detention conditions in metal shipping containers is unchanged.

Amnesty International is also today re-releasing its December 2005 report on religious persecution in Eritrea, including other human rights violations, with new translations into the Tigrinya and Arabic languages so that it can be better available to Eritreans (The Tigrinya and Arabic translations of the report, Eritrea: Religious Persecution, AI Index 65/013/2005, December 2005, are available on the Amnesty International website at www.amnesty.org or write to eastafrica@amnesty.org). There has been no significant change to the situation of religious persecution and few known releases since the report was published.

International concern about a persistent pattern of serious human rights violations in Eritrea has been brushed aside by the Eritrean government. The government’s only response to Amnesty International’s report on religious persecution was the following media comment from the Acting Minister of Information: “Who are these Amnesty International people? We cannot run every day after such unsubstantiated fabrications.” The government falsely claims there is “absolute religious freedom” as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The pattern of religious persecution, the subject of Amnesty International’s most recent Eritrea report and campaigning, is unchanged, although there have apparently been fewer arrests so far in 2006 than the previous year. Evangelical gospel singer Helen Berhane, for whom there have been thousands of appeals worldwide — with no government response — is still in army custody since May 2004. The main government targets have been Jehovah’s Witnesses, because they refuse military conscription, and members of evangelical Christian churches which were closed down in 2002. Some 70 members of a dissident Muslim group are also detained. 25 evangelical pastors as well as three “reformist” clerics of the officially permitted Eritrean Orthodox Church, whose elderly Patriarch is reportedly in poor health under house arrest since criticising their arrests, remain held with hundreds of other detainees under harsh conditions in the Karchele security prison in Asmara .

Background

Eritrea became formally independent on 24 May 1993 after a UN referendum and two years of de facto independence from Ethiopian rule won by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) which formed the new government. EPLF leader and current President Issayas Afewerki has indefinitely postponed elections required under the Constitution (1997), since the border conflict with Ethiopia (1998-2000). The boundary issue is still unresolved..

Opposition parties and independent non-governmental organisations are not allowed and criticisms of the government are vigorously suppressed. Religious worship by faith groups denied official registration (particularly evangelical Christians) is harshly punished.

Military conscription is rigorously enforced and tension with Ethiopia remains high. The government faces the threat of armed conflict from a Sudan-based opposition coalition.