Twenty years on – imprisoned without trial, but never forgotten: Sahle “Wedi-Itay” Tsefezab

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.

Sahle Wedi-Itay Tsefezab - Eritrean Political PrisonerIn 1974, Sahle joined the EPLF, received military training and assigned to the infantry unit where he was engaged in many fierce battlefields eventually serving as a Battalion Commissioner. However, during one such battle he sustained a bad injury and he was forced back to the base.

Following recovery from his injuries, he was assigned to the law enforcement unit and then to the intelligence service unit (aka the ‘72nd unit’) where he eventually becoming Head of the counter-intelligence branch. He met with different people, including Ethiopian opposition fighters, represented the EPLF sometimes accompanied by politburo members which enabled him to established a network of contacts with higher ranking Ethiopian officials and EPRDF members.

In the 1990-1991 battles, Sahle’s contribution was significant in the establishment of the Southern Front and launching the final offensive in the Dekemhare front while at the same time providing vital intelligence to Petros Solomon, who was leading the offensive from the Fort of Segeneyti in support of the EPRDF and Eritrean forces who were marching towards Addis Ababa and Asmara respectively.

Following independence in 1991, Sahle continued to work for his country in full support for the rule-of-law and freedom of speech. He documented the violations and atrocities committed by the EPLF and the then provisional government, against its own people. He was opposed to abuse of power and unjust decisions made about his compatriots, who were accused of “having innocent Eritreans’ blood in their hands” by President Isaias Afeworki without offering them a fair trial.

Sahle was moved from the Intelligence Unit to become the Director of the Civilian Case Files in the Attorney General’s office where he worked hard to streamline the processes. He introduced a tax payment system to help sole traders and companies overcome the recurrent penalties they were exposed to for late returns and/or payment of taxes. As part of this, he reviewed the disabled fighters loan scheme.

Sahle wrote articles in Hadas Eritrea Journal to highlight various abuses and bureaucracies. He pressed the editor to publish his articles in full, saying, “The curtain of fear is torn – we are not going back into the wombs of our mothers”. However, freedom of expression in Hadas Eritrea Journal was, increasingly curtailed and Sahle started to channel his articles to the “Zemen” – an independent Journal, where he continued to boldly argued against all forms of torture, detention and miseries.

In September 2001, Sahle was arrested by the Eritrean security services and his whereabouts remain unknow.

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