Irwin Cotler is chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. Shirin Ebadi is a human rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Christophe Deloire is secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.
In 2001, Dawit Isaak was kidnapped by Eritrean authorities in a sweeping roundup of journalists, independent media and government critics. For 19 years, he has been held incommunicado, likely in solitary confinement, without any charge, trial or contact with the outside world. His last “proof of life” dates back to 2005. There is reason to believe he has been held in the secret Eiraeiro prison camp in the middle of a mountainous desert with conditions designed to inflict a slow death on its completely isolated political prisoners. At least seven of the journalists arrested with him have already tragically died in detention. Meanwhile, the Eritrean officials responsible for these crimes are still in power.
And so today, on World Press Freedom Day, we are calling on Canada and its allies to hold these officials to account and stand up for those fighting to preserve this most fundamental right worldwide.
While still in elementary school, Mr. Isaak authored and staged theatre plays and, as a young adult, published two novels in his native language of Tigrinya, winning several prizes and gaining national attention. However, in 1985, Mr. Isaak fled Eritrea’s brutal war of independence (1961-1991), finding refuge in Sweden, where he worked as a church janitor in Gothenburg. During the day, he swept floors, while at night he was active in the Eritrean diaspora, dreaming of a free and democratic Eritrea.
In 1993, when Eritrea gained independence and a year after Mr. Isaak obtained Swedish citizenship, he immediately returned to his hometown of Asmara, married and started a family. In 1997, he launched Eritrea’s first independent newspaper, Setit, along with other journalists. Mr. Isaak used his platform to promote social justice and press for more transparency and accountability in public affairs.
On Sept. 23, 2001, the authorities arrested and imprisoned Mr. Isaak in the wake of bans on all independent media. In May, 2009, Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s only president since its independence in 1993, sent a chilling message to journalists in the country and elsewhere: “We will not have any trial, and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind.”
Since Mr. Afwerki assumed power, he has stifled all forms of media, resulting in the worst press-freedom record in the world. According to Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index, Eritrea is ranked last out of 180 countries, behind China and North Korea, and has remained at the bottom for more than a decade, allowing its leaders to entrench their power and commit atrocities unchecked by a free press.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation in Eritrea has concluded that Eritrean officials have perpetrated crimes against humanity for decades in a widespread and systematic attack against civilians, including enslavement, enforced disappearances, torture and rape, among other crimes. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country, while those who remain are subjected to conscription into open-ended national service that often amounts to a life of forced labour; arbitrary arrest for any form of dissent; and other severe restrictions on basic services, including adequate water, food and medicine.
The UN recommended that all countries bring the suspects of these serious international crimes before national courts through universal jurisdiction, particularly as the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over Eritrea. To that end, we recently filed a complaint with a coalition of prominent jurists, appealing to the Swedish prosecution authority to open an investigation and issue arrest warrants against Mr. Afwerki, along with seven senior accomplices, to bring this impunity to an end. Condemnations and international efforts have thus far failed to attain real accountability.
As one of the first countries to adopt the Magnitsky Act, Canada should lead its allies in imposing targeted sanctions in the form of asset freezes and travel bans on the eight senior Eritrean officials responsible for this brutal domestic repression. Listing these officials would expedite a similar process within the EU, particularly to protect Dawit Isaak, the only EU citizen to be named an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, a unanimous recipient of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize and an international symbol of media freedom.
Canada and the EU should use a combined approach of imposing Magnitsky sanctions and issuing arrest warrants under universal jurisdiction, even if this would not allow for direct action in Eritrea. The officials responsible for banishing Dawit Isaak, along with a free press, to die in the heat of the desert must face consequences for their crimes against humanity.
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