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Amnesty urge Eritrea to release officials
Rights group demands the release of 11 senior officials held incommunicado since a government crackdown in 2001.
Last Modified: 16 Sep 2011 19:30
Eleven out of 15 officials who criticised Afewerki and called for reform were subsequently jailed in 2001 [EPA]

Rights group Amnesty International has demanded the release of 11 former Eritrean officials who have been held incommunicado since a government crackdown in 2001.

Friday's call comes a day after the European Parliament condemned the detention of Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who was arrested as part of the same crackdown, and called for him to be given a fair
trial by an independent court.

Eritrea is routinely labelled by watchdogs as one of the world's worst offenders against human rights, but the Horn of Africa nation rejects the allegations and often accuses rights groups of working for foreign intelligence services to undermine the government.

Vice President Mahmoud Sherifo, Foreign Minister Haile Woldetensae, military Chief-of-Staff Ogbe Abraha and eight central committee members were part of a group of 15 officials who criticised President Isaias Afewerki and asked for reform following Eritrea's 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.

The government subsequently arrested 11 members of the group, saying they had conspired with Ethiopia to topple Isaias.

"The Eritrean authorities must immediately and unconditionally release 11 prominent politicians, including three former cabinet ministers, who have been held incommunicado without charge for 10 years," UK-based Amnesty International said in a statement.

"Their families must be told of their whereabouts, and they must be given access to lawyers as well as any medical treatment they need," added Michelle Kagari, Amnesty's Deputy Director for Africa.

'Dire' conditions

Amnesty, which has described the detainees as prisoners of conscience, said prisons were "notoriously dire" in the Red Sea state, with inmates subjected to soaring desert temperatures while incarcerated in underground cells and in shipping containers.

The UK-based rights group said several members of the group were already suffering from illness before their arrest.

Eritrean government officials in Asmara, the capital, were not immediately available for comment.

A former prison watchman who guarded the Embatkala and Eraeiro camps where the detainees are held, and where temperatures can soar to up to 50 Celsius, said in May last year that Mahmoud, Ogbe and four other former central committee members had died due to illness and heat exhaustion.

The guard spoke to journalists in Addis Ababa days after fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia. 

Amnesty did not confirm the deaths, and the government has so far kept a tight lid on their whereabouts.

Last week, the government charged Amnesty of plotting to incite Middle East-style popular unrest, a claim the group dismissed.

'Inhumane circumstances'

Isaak has never faced charges but the presumption of human rights activists is that he was detained because of his criticism of the Eritrean government. He was arrested in Asmara on September 23, 2001.

The resolution passed by European politicians in a 53-0 vote said the 46 year old "has been held incommunicado and in all probability under inhumane circumstances almost permanently ever since,'' and demandede be given a fair trial.

It also calls for Eritrea to be suspended from the Cotonou Agreement, a comprehensive partnership agreement between developing countries and the European Union that includes economic aid.

"Our hope is that Dawit Isaak is alive,'' the parliament's president, Jerzy Buzek, said in a speech on Wednesday.

"That he will be free. That he will rejoin his family. That we will not have to observe another anniversary as
this one.''

The parliamentarians demanded that EU representatives to be given access to Isaak to determine his health care and other needs.

Source:
Agencies
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