23 September 2001 was a Sunday. At the home of journalist Dawit Isaak in Asmara, he, his wife and three children were about to have breakfast when the two plainclothes policemen came. Since he has been in the hands of the Eritrean state. He has never been sentenced. He has never had his case tried in court.
Dawit Isaak holds dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship. In 2003 Dawit Isaak was awarded the first ever Press Freedom Prize by the Reporters without Borders/Sweden because “he chose to write freely and encouraged others to do the same and as a result he lost his freedom”. For the rulers in Asmara that was unforgiveable. A few days earlier the Eritrean regime had closed all the independent newspapers in the country.
They are still closed. In that way the Freedoms of Expression and Information of all Eritreans are violated, those two unalienable rights that belong to all human beings.
Dawit Isaak is the best known but is not the only Eritrean journalist who is in detention and there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in the country.
When Reporters without Borders and others ask Eritrean representatives about Dawit Isaak and his colleagues we have been told to focus on the border conflict with Ethiopia and not some individuals. Ethiopia has been occupying a part of Eritrea for 20 years. But after the peace agreement last year, between Eritrea and Ethiopia, that is no longer an argument. But still the regime does not release Dawit Isaak and his colleagues.
A UN Commission has declared that Crimes against humanity are committed in Eritrea. Reporters without Borders and a group of jurists have brought Dawit Isaak’s case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In its decision in 2016 the Commission demanded he and his colleagues be released and the press ban lifted. Nothing has happened.
Sweden is holding discreet talks with Eritrea, the EU gives aid to Eritrea hoping it will help. But we have seen no result in 18 years. Over the years we have heard that something may happen around the next Eritrean national day. Or the next. Or when the journalists have been in detention 10 years. Or 15 years. Or now, when there is a peace accord.
18 years have passed. Dawit Isaak and his colleagues risk their lives every day in the brutal Eritrean prisons. There is no time to lose.
Above all the journalists and their families have lost too much time. 18 years.