In the wake of the tragic failure of Eritrea’s 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, senior members of the Eritrean government began a campaign to bring about the democracy that the 30 year war of liberation had been fought for.
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.
Dawit Isaak moved to Sweden as a refugee in August 1987 and became Swedish citizen in 1992. When Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia Dawit returned to the country and began to work as a reporter for the country’s first independent newspaper Setit. Eventually, he became a part-owner of the paper.
On 23 September 2001, Dawit was arrested at his home in Asmara and at the same time as several other independent journalists and members of G-15, a group of prominent ex-freedom fighters and members of the national assembly who were arrested for demanding democratic reforms in a series of letters to President Isaias Afeworki. The independent press, including the Setit, had covered the confrontation between the President and the reformers. They were permanently closed down.
Because Dawit holds dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship, the Swedish authorities soon began working for his release, using “silent diplomacy” according to government sources. On 19 November 2005, Dawit was released from jail, and according to official Eritrean sources. He was allowed to see a doctor, but two days later he was taken back to prison.
On 27 March 2009, four of the five largest newspapers in Sweden, Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, featured a plea for the release of Isaak on their front pages. In addition, the five newspapers carried joint features on Dawit’s situation. A petition was handed over to the Eritrean Embassy in Stockholm signed by 209,963 people.
On 26 May 2009, during an interview with the Swedish TV4 (channel 4) the President of Eritrea dismissed Dawit’s case altogether with these words: “We will not have any trial and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind.” and “To me, Sweden is irrelevant. The Swedish government has nothing to do with us.”
On several occasions, rumours have circulated that Dawit had died. When a government official from Eritrea was asked about the rumours during an interview in Sweden, he avoided the question, refusing to give an answer.