October 21, 2019
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Freedom Of Thought

No word from Dawit Isaak

 Designed by Irene de Pablo for Agencia EFE

Designed by Irene de Pablo for Agencia EFE

Madrid, Oct 25 (efe-epa).- Dawit Isaak marks his 53rd anniversary this week, behind bars in an Eritrean prison. One of the candidates to the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Isaak has been recognized with many other awards whilst in jail, where he was locked up by Issaias Afewerki's regime on September 23, 2001 for publishing in his weekly "Setit" an open letter in defence of freedom in his country. 

The river that never dries out

When Dawit Isaak founded "Setit" in 1997, he named it after the only river that never dries out. "We wanted our newspaper to be a constant flow of information", one of his colleagues and co-founder Aaron Berhane, now exiled in Canada, explained some years later. 

Isaak himself had escaped war in his twenties, obtained asylum in Sweden and eventually Swedish nationality. In 1993, shortly after his country managed to gain independence from Ethiopia, he decided to return.

In the newly born Eritrea, he pursued a career in writing and started a family. Together with his wife and three children, he briefly returned to Sweden in 2000 to protect them from new hostilities, but the following year he decided, once more, to go back to his home country. 

Over the years, a group of politiciansand journalists were jailed, Dawit being one of them, after demanding of Afewerki fresh elections, a Constitution for the new country, and that the dictator kept his promises made to the Eritrean people. It is known that some of them have died in prison, but there is no news of others. 

"Isaak's case is symbolic of those who have suffered enforced disappearances at the hands of the Eritrean government and are still missing", special rapporteur for the UN on Human Rights situation in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, said on May 3, 2017.  

"Isaak was imprisoned along with 20 other journalists after asking for constitutional reforms (...) He has remained in prison for 16 year and 8 days, without a trial, a lawyer, or any contact with his family”, Elena Valenciano, Spanish member of the European Parliament, recalled when submitting his candidacy for the Sakharov Prize. 

The European socialdemocrats (S&D) backed Dawit's candidacy, after already being a finalist in 2009 for the prize to the freedom of thought that the European Parliament awards. 

Free Dawit

From his imprisonment, Isaak has been in touch with his family only once in November of 2005 during a brief two days release. No further news was received about him until May 2013, when a former prison officer that had fled Eritrea disclosed to a Swedish newspaper that he was still alive, sick and confined in terrible conditions.

During all these years, family, press and international organizations have continued to mention Dawit Isaak's name to ensure that he is not forgotten, in several attempts to try and free the imprisoned journalists in Eritrea. 

"It may look desperate, but we are convinced that the attention that his case is receiving is what is keeping him alive", committee Free Dawit proclaims in it's website, an NGO that has been promoted by Isaak's wife and one of his friends, that includes the Swedish branch of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) within its membership.

The journalist has been recognized with one prize after another. RSF awarded him with his first international distinction, the Prize to the Freedom of Press, in 2003, that was followed by the Anna Politkovskaya of the Swedish Press club (2006/07), the Kurt Tucholski (2009) and the Freedom of Expression Prize of the Authors Group of Norway (2010). 

In 2011, he also received the Golden Pen of Freedom, an award from the World Association of Newspapers WAN-IFRA, as well as the  UNESCO's Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017,  in addition to the Sakharov candidacy. 

RSF, recipient of the Sakharov Prize itself in 2005, also promoted an initiative that led to the publication in Sweden of Isaak's writings under the title "Hope: Maoises and Maná's love story and other texts", translated into English and French. 

The biggest journalists' prison in Africa

Eritrea and North Korea compete over the last position in the ranking published by RSF each year. It's the second country in the world with the highest number of incarcerated journalists, after China. Only State media is allowed, where censorship is absolute. 

"There is a red line that cannot be crossed", told EFE one of the reporters that fled the country after going through three incarcerations and tortures that were only considered "mild": sleep deprivation, physical abuse and diets consisting of bread and water.

This journalist is part of the sad exile forced by the dictatorship. The Eritreans are, along with Syrians and Iraqis, the main beneficiaries of asylums granted by the EU. Over 47.000 of them applied for it in 2015. 

The campaign for the release of Dawit has been relentless: in addition to the demonstrations and talks that the committee Free Dawit organizes in Sweden periodically, his case has reached high international agencies.

In 2013, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights debated in an extraordinary session in Gambia the "habeas corpus" petition for Isaak, that the Eritrean justice system ignored. 

In 2014, RSF filed a suit against Afewerki in Sweden accusing him of crimes against humanity after a new Swedish law for universal justice came into effect, and in 2015 they took Isaak's case before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights and addressed the UN Human Rights Council. 

But Afewerki is ignoring his critics. Not even Sweden's pressure, given Dawit is a Swedish citizen, has been useful to change his luck. "We will not judge him and we will not free him. We know how to deal with people of his kind", the dictator resolved in an interview with Swedish press in 2009. 

His Foreign Affairs Minister, Osman Saleh, confirmed in June, 2016 that Dawit Isaak was alive and that he would be prosecuted at the Eritrean government's will. 

It's clear to Bethlehem, Dawit's daughter, that Eritrea will not succumb to pressure. When receiving UNESCO's Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize on May 3, 2017 in Jakarta, she pushed for the international community "to get involved in a fruitful dialogue" with the Eritrean government to try to improve the human rights situation in the African country.

Describing her father, she underlined that he knew that "without the basic establishment of human rights, freedom of speech, and access to education and health care, no society could flourish, no nation can achieve stability and no people could prosper".

By Julia R. Arévalo

Translated by H. Cook



The project was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant program in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information for opinions expressed in the context of this project. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or program broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the project.

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