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.
Medhanie Haile, the editor Keste Debana, was one of several journalists arrested following the Eritrean government’s crackdown on independent media in 2001. His critical articles had called for the rule of law. He was also among a group of journalists who wrote to the Ministry of Information in September 2001 asking for an explanation for the closure of the private press.
Medhanie was arrested after the government banned privately owned press on 18 September 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. Medhanie’s paper was one of several that reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice, and he called for the full implementation of the country’s democratic constitution. A dozen top reformist officials, whose pro-democracy statements had been covered by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.
The journalists were detained at a police station in Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on 31 March 2002, and smuggled a message out of jail demanding the due process of law. The government responded by transferring them to secret locations without bringing them before a court or publicly registering charges. They are thought to be held at the infamous Ira-Iro prison.
Medhanie’s whereabouts, health, and wellbeing remain unknown. The Eritrean government repeatedly failed to provide credible answers to questions about imprisoned journalists, or to allow visits from family or lawyers.
When the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in October 2020, no one answered the call on multiple occasions. In one instance, a person answered the phone but was inaudible, and then did not answer when CPJ called back.
Two days before his arrest, Medhanie declared: “We are a country governed by the rule of law and we are asking for an explantion for these actions. We cannot live in fear.” The request for an explantion has fallen in deaf ears and remains unanswered for 20 years, while Medhanie and his collagues languish in prisons.