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Eritrean gospel singer, physically mistreated in confinement, now granted asylum in Europe

ICC Note

“We cannot forget, however, that 2,000 other Christians still languish in Eritrean detention centers simply for holding on to their faith. Eritreans are fleeing their homeland in droves because of their fear of this regime. We urge the international community to stop watching this situation develop and start intervening to create a brighter future for the people of this overlooked country.”

By Michael Ireland

Friday, October 19, 2007 Eritrea (ANS) — Almost a year after her release, former Eritrean prisoner, Helen Berhane, today arrived in a European country where she has been granted asylum.

Despite her ordeal in detention leaving her unable to walk without assistance, Ms Berhane and her sister managed to flee to Sudan in December 2006. She has maintained a low profile in Khartoum for the last 11 months, where she was later joined by her daughter.

Thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country each month, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). The Eritrean government has allegedly responded to this by publicly executing anyone found to be assisting in these escapes, including the man who facilitated the escape of Ms. Berhane’s daughter. Sources report that after execution the man’s body was placed in a sack and unceremoniously deposited in front of his parent’s home.

Ms Berhane initially applied for asylum in the UK , but Home Office delays in processing her application led to a decision to seek refuge in a different European country. She will now require medical attention for her fragile health.

32-year-old Helen Berhane is one of the most high-profile former prisoners from Eritrea , and her case was widely publicized around the world. She was a member of the Rhema Pentecostal Church and was incarcerated in May 2004 after she released an album of gospel music popular among young Eritrean Christians.

Ms Berhane is reported to have been held for extensive periods of time in shipping containers and in underground cells at the Mai-Serwa military camp. She repeatedly refused to sign a paper recanting her faith and promising not to participate in church-related activities.

In early 2006 Ms. Berhane was severely assaulted by a guard who beat her and left her for dead. She did not receive adequate treatment until a month before her release in November when she was admitted to hospital still showing signs of the physical mistreatment that disabled her.

On May 13 2004, shortly after she released an album of Christian music, Helen was arrested when she refused to sign a document pledging to end all participation in Christian activities, effectively forcing her to abandon her prohibited evangelical faith and music. Since this date Helen was detained at Mai Serwa military camp, north of the capital Asmara .

Helen spent most of her time in detention in a metal shipping container, suffocating hot during the day and freezing cold at night. Despite promises of release if she abandoned her faith and religious singing, Helen persistently refused to do so.

Helen is a member of the Rhema church, one of several minority Christian churches not officially recognized by the state of Eritrea . She is one of almost 150 women members of banned evangelical churches who have been detained without charge or trial on account of their religious beliefs. In May 2002 the government of Eritrea ordered the closure of all churches except those representing four recognized faiths — Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islam.

This followed the establishment of a compulsory registration scheme for all religious organizations under the Department for Religious Affairs. Though minority churches were reportedly willing to comply with these demands the process was fraught with difficulties and so most were unable to do so. Arrests of members of unauthorized minority religions followed, including many children.

Earlier during he detention, Eritrean authorities returned popular Christian singer Helen Berhane to military detention after she spent three days in Asmara ‘s Halibet Hospital for medical treatment. Berhane’s leg was seriously damaged as a result of beatings she received while imprisoned in a metal shipping container since her arrest in May 2004.

Berhane was admitted into the hospital in serious condition. A report at that time stated that Ms Berhane showed signs of physical mistreatment and was seen in a wheelchair at the hospital. The report added that Ms. Berhane’s severe mistreatment has been simply for her faith as she has been incarcerated without charges or trial for 2 years.

In addition, in an apparent campaign to bring all religious groups under its control, the government of Eritrea recently focused its efforts on religious schools, shutting down schools of several faiths.

Eritrea is a country known for its gross human rights abuses; officials arrested 40 members of the Kale Hiwot church, including 10 children. When relatives tried to visit them with blankets and food, they too were arrested. The Eritrean government states no one in the country is persecuted for their faith and all are free to worship as they like, but human rights groups estimate there are 1,800 Christians incarcerated in prisons, military camps and shipping containers.

Organizations such as Amnesty International were concerned for Helen Berhane’s welfare and called for her immediate and unconditional release as a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of religion.

Dr. Berhane Asmelash, Director of Release Eritrea said: “We are relieved that Helen and Eva are finally safe and would like to thank everyone who has supported them. We hope that Helen will now have the peace and space to recover her health and rebuild her life.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, said: “We are thrilled that Helen has now finally found refuge for herself and her daughter after so many years of suffering. The profile of her case made it impossible for Helen to remain in Eritrea , and in Sudan she faced the constant threat of being sent back. She was forced to move house on several occasions as delays in the asylum process left her in an increasingly vulnerable position, yet her courage and faith throughout her ordeal has been deeply inspiring.

“We cannot forget, however, that 2,000 other Christians still languish in Eritrean detention centers simply for holding on to their faith. Eritreans are fleeing their homeland in droves because of their fear of this regime. We urge the international community to stop watching this situation develop and start intervening to create a brighter future for the people of this overlooked country.”

CSW is a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.