Twenty years on: imprisoned without trial, but never forgotten: Astier Yohannes

They formed the G-15: men and women who challenged President Isaias to give the Eritrean people the freedoms they had been promised. In dawn raids on 18 and 19 September 2001 the president’s notorious security forces rounded them up and jailed them. None have ever been taken before a court or convicted of any crime. They have rotted in prison ever since.

At the same time independent newspapers were closed and journalists arrested. The nightmare of repression which has hung over Eritrea ever since had begun.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of these terrible events, we recall those who have been in Eritrea’s jails ever since. Their families have been deprived of them; their friends have lost them. But they have never been forgotten. Nor has the flame of hope that they ignited – of a proud, free and democratic country.

We have profiles of these brave men and women – and will share them daily.

Astier Yohannes

Astier Yohannes

While studying Engineering at the University of Addis Ababa, Astier joined a clandestine Eritrean cell working to support the Eritrean struggle for independence. The underground cell was uncovered by the Ethiopian secret services and Astier and her comrades had to leave Addis to join the struggle.

In 1979, Astier joined the EPLF and received a six-month military and political training in Arag and then took part in various battles against the Ethiopian army. She met fellow freedom fighter Petros Solomon and got married and have four children; Zerai, Hanna, Simon and Maaza. Life was very difficult as a fighter but to also be a mother at the same time took special grit and dedication.

Following independence in 1991 Astier worked in various government departments, including the Department of Fisheries and Marine life but she had a desire to complete her university degree which she had abandoned to fight for her country. In 2000, she was awarded a UNDP scholarship to study at the University of Phoenix, USA. It was not an easy decision to leave behind her young children and husband but she felt compelled to carry on with her studies to help rebuild her new country.

On 18 September 2001, while Astier was still in the US, her husband, Petros Solomon, along with his G-15 comrades were arrested by the Eritrean security services for demanding the Eritrean President convene the parliament, implement 1997 ratified Constitution and put in place proper governance and accountability.

Astier’s children were taken care of by their grandmother, Weizero Mezgeb, and Astier tried to continue with her studies but she found it tough. Eventually, she decided to return home despite friends and family advising against it. She did so after receiving assurances of her safety from the Eritrean Ambassador to the US, Girma Asmerom, who also bought her return ticket so that she could return safely. On her arrival at Asmara International Airport on 11 December 2003 she was arrested and driven away while her children were waiting at the reception hall.

Astier is believed to be imprisoned at Karsholi (unit number 31) where she is allowed 15 minutes a week exercise. She was never brought to court and she is not allowed food and clothing from her family. The regime has not even acknowledged her incarceration.

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