Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the government committed arbitrary killings with impunity and subjected detainees to harsh and life-threatening prison conditions.
In August the UN Human Rights Committee released a list of issues pertaining to the government’s implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the government did not submit a report at that session. The United Nations’ list of issues included a number of references to human rights violations, including reports of wide-scale extrajudicial executions and disappearances, especially of those whose loyalty to the authorities was questioned. The list also referred to allegations of cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by governmental actors, particularly the National Security Office.
The UN special rapporteur (SR) on the situation of human rights in Eritrea presented her fifth and final report at the Human Rights Council on June 14. The report referred to an arbitrary killing of a young man who was trying to cross the border in July 2017, and the SR asserted instances of extrajudicial killings at the border continued. In 2017 Doctors without Borders reported on the experiences of Eritreans who reported they were shot trying to cross the border to Ethiopia.
A 2016 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report found that authorities had previously committed extrajudicial executions and arbitrary killings. In July 2017 the SR reported that her requests to visit the country during her five-year mandate had also been denied, thus limiting her ability to provide further information on current conditions.
An unknown number of persons disappeared during the year and were believed to be in government detention or to have died while in detention. The government did not make efforts to prevent the disappearances, or investigate or punish those responsible for such disappearances. The government did not regularly notify family members or respond to requests for information regarding the status of detainees, including locally employed staff of foreign embassies and foreign or dual nationals. Disappeared persons included those detained for political and religious beliefs, journalists, individuals suspected of evading national service and militia duties, and persons not known to have committed any offense.
There were no known developments regarding the situation or well-being of members of the G-15, a group of former ruling party members and officials who called for reforms, and journalists whom the government detained in 2001.
The law and the unimplemented constitution prohibit torture. Reports of torture, however, continued.
According to NGO and UN reports, security forces tortured and beat army deserters, national service evaders, persons attempting to flee the country without travel documents, and members of certain religious groups.
Lack of transparency and access to information made it impossible to determine the numbers or circumstances of deaths due to torture or poor detention conditions.
In 2015 the COI, which had been denied access to the country, reported sexual violence against women and girls was widespread in military training camps, that the sexual violence by military personnel in camps and the army amounted to torture, and the forced domestic service of women and girls in training camps amounted to sexual slavery. In a 2015 report, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern regarding reports of women in national service frequently subjected to sexual violence, including rape. There was no access for observers to assess these reports, limiting observers’ ability to speak directly to current conditions.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Detention conditions reportedly remained harsh, leading to serious health damage and in some instances death, but the lack of independent access made accurate reporting problematic.
Physical Conditions: There were numerous official and unofficial detention centers, some located in military camps. The Ministry of Justice oversees prisons run by the police, and the Ministry of Defense oversees those run by the military. The law requires juveniles be held separately from adults. There is a juvenile detention center in Asmara, but authorities held some juveniles, particularly teenagers, with adults, due to overcrowding in that center. When police arrested mothers, their young children sometimes were held with them. Severe overcrowding was common.
Data on the prevalence of death in prison and detention facilities were not available, although persons reportedly died from harsh conditions, including lack of medical care and use of excessive force. The government did not take action against persons responsible for detainee deaths.
In July, Doctors without Borders quoted one Eritrean who had experienced overcrowded prison conditions after trying to cross the border into Sudan. The SR’s June report mentioned four deaths resulting from harsh prison conditions: Habtemichael Mekonen and Habtemichael Tesfamariam, both Jehovah’s Witnesses; Haji Musa Mohammed Nur, president of al-Diaa Islamic School in Asmara; and Haile Woldetensae, former minister of foreign affairs and one of the G-15. In late 2017, two deaths were reported: Solomon Habtom, a former freedom fighter, and an unnamed evangelical Christian.
Authorities held some detainees incommunicado in metal shipping containers and underground cells without toilets or beds. Use of psychological torture was common, according to inmates held in prior years. Some former prisoners reported authorities conducted interrogations and beatings within hearing distance of other prisoners to intimidate them. The government did not provide adequate basic or emergency medical care in prisons or detention centers, although a Western visitor reported seeing groups of prisoners at a private eye doctor for regular six-month check-ups. Food, sanitation, ventilation, and lighting were inadequate, and potable water was sometimes available only for purchase.
Former detainees and other sources reported harsh detention conditions in police stations and in prisons for persons held for evading national service and militia duties.
Authorities placed political prisoners in solitary confinement more often than other detainees.
Administration: Prisoners and detainees could not submit complaints to judicial authorities, and authorities did not adequately investigate or monitor prison or detention center conditions. There were no prison ombudsmen to respond to complaints.
Prisoners and detainees did not have consistent access to visitors. The government did not inform foreign embassies when their respective citizens were arrested, nor did it grant consular access to detained dual-national citizens. Authorities generally did not permit family visits with persons detained, arrested, or convicted for reasons purportedly involving national security, but it permitted visits with those held for other reasons. Authorities did not permit religious observance for some prisoners and detainees, although at least one detention center had a facility where authorities permitted inmates to conduct religious observances. International religious organizations claimed authorities interrogated detainees regarding their religious affiliation and asked them to identify members of unauthorized religious groups.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit monitoring by independent government or nongovernmental observers or permit international bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to monitor prison conditions during the year. The government also did not provide the ICRC with information about or access to Ethiopian and Djiboutian prisoners of war detained in the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but such acts remained widespread.
In September security agents apprehended former finance minister Berhane Abrehe without charge days after he published a two-volume book critical of the government. He remained under house arrest with security officials posted outside of his residence. His wife Almaz Habtemariam was detained in February, allegedly for helping their son leave the country without a required exit visa.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Police are responsible for maintaining internal security, and the armed forces are responsible for external security, but the government sometimes used the armed forces, the reserves, demobilized soldiers, or the civilian militia to meet domestic as well as external security requirements. Agents of the National Security Office, which reports to the Office of the President, are responsible for detaining persons suspected of threatening national security. The armed forces have authority to arrest and detain civilians. Police generally do not have a role in cases involving national security.
Impunity for abuse was the norm. There were no known internal or external mechanisms to investigate security force abuse or government actions to reform the security forces.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law stipulates that, unless there is a crime in progress, police must conduct an investigation and obtain a warrant prior to making an arrest, but this seldom occurred. In cases involving national security, police may waive the process. Detainees must be brought before a judge within 48 hours of arrest and may not be held more than 28 days without being charged with a crime. Authorities generally detained suspects for longer periods without bringing them before a judge, charging them with a crime, or telling them the reason for detention. Authorities sometimes arbitrarily changed charges during detention. The government promoted the assumption that they detained persons held without charge due to national security concerns.
The law provides for a bail system, but bail was arbitrarily denied, bail amounts were capriciously set or not set, and release on bail sometimes involved paying bribes.
Detainees held on national security grounds did not have access to counsel. Other detainees, including indigent persons, often did not have such access either. Incommunicado detention was widespread. Detainees did not have routine access to visitors.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest occurred frequently. During the October 2017 and March 2018 protests over the arrest and death in custody of Haji Musa Mohammed Nur, arrests and arbitrary detentions occurred, and in November 2017 there were reports of the arrest and detention of a wife and mother of three young children after her husband had left the country.
Security force personnel detained individuals for reasons that included suspicion of intent to evade national and militia service, criticizing the government, attempting to leave the country, and unspecified national security threats. Authorities also continued to arrest members of unregistered Christian groups, primarily for their refusal to perform national service. According to UK-based freedom advocacy group CSW, formerly known as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Human Rights Watch, between May and December 2017 the government arrested approximately 210 evangelical Christians. In July international religious NGOs reported the release of more than 35 Jehovah’s Witnesses who had renounced their religion four years prior.
Authorities sometimes arrested persons whose papers were not in order and detained them until they were able to provide evidence of their militia status or demobilization from national service. The government contacted places of employment and used informers to attempt to identify those unwilling to participate in the militia.
There were occasional reports, particularly from rural areas, that security forces detained and interrogated the parents, spouses, or siblings of individuals who evaded national service or fled the country.
Persons arrested in previous years for refusing to bear arms on grounds of conscience and for participating in unregistered religious groups remained in detention.
Pretrial Detention: The government held numerous detainees without charge or due process. Detainees were not always told the reason for their arrest. Authorities brought few, if any, persons detained purportedly on national security grounds to trial. The percentage of the prison and detention center population in pretrial detention was not available.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees were not able to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law and unimplemented constitution provide for an independent judiciary, but executive control of the judiciary continued, and the judiciary was neither independent nor impartial. Judicial corruption remained a problem. There are special courts charged with handling corruption cases, but there was no clarity on their structure or implementation. The Office of the President served as a clearinghouse for citizens’ petitions to some courts. It also acted as an arbitrator or a facilitator in civil matters for some courts. The judiciary suffered from lack of trained personnel, inadequate funding, and poor infrastructure.
The unimplemented constitution provides for the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, with an exception that allows the court to exclude the press and public for reasons relating to morals or national security. In practice, however, the right to such a trial was generally not respected.
The unimplemented constitution provides for the presumption of innocence and for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of charges in a language they understand. The law does not specifically address the provision of adequate time or facilities to prepare one’s defense, the right of defendants to confront witnesses, or the provision of free interpretation from the moment charged through all appeals, although courts generally accorded these rights to defendants in cases courts did not deem related to national security. There is no right for defendants to refuse to testify. Defendants have the right to be present and to consult with attorneys or to present their own evidence if they do not wish to have an attorney. Prosecution and defense lawyers are court appointed and have the right to present evidence and witnesses. Defendants who are unable to pay for an attorney are not provided one at public expense.
Courts of first instance are at the regional level. Each party to a case has the right to one appeal. Decisions rendered by any regional court may be appealed to the next appellate court. Should the appellate court reverse a decision of the lower court, the party whose petition was not sustained may appeal to the five-judge upper appellate court. If the lower appellate court upholds the decision of a regional court, there is no second appeal.
Special courts have jurisdiction over both corruption and national security cases. Judges serve as prosecutors and may request that individuals involved in cases testify. Special court judges are predominantly military officials. The special courts report to the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the President. Trials in special courts are not open to the public, and the court’s decisions are final, without appeal.
Community courts headed by elected officials were widely used in rural areas and generally followed traditional and customary law rather than formal law. Local administrators in rural areas encouraged citizens to reconcile outside the court system for less serious cases. Trials in community courts were open to the public and heard by a panel of judges. Judges are elected by the community.
In 2015 the government published revised penal, criminal procedure, civil, and civil procedure codes. The codes had yet to be put into full effect by year’s end. Some judges applied the new codes while others did not.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
The government continued to hold an unknown number of detainees without charge or trial, including politicians, journalists, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and persons suspected of not completing national service or evading militia practice (see also section 1.b., Disappearance). Like other prisoners, the government did not permit any access to political detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
There are no civil judicial procedures for individuals claiming human rights violations by the government.
The law and the unimplemented constitution prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but the government did not respect these rights.
Many citizens believed the government monitored cell phones in particular since authorities required permits to use subscriber identity module (SIM) cards. To obtain a SIM card, citizens must present proof of completion of or exemption from national service, a PFDJ membership card, and a letter of recommendation from their regional office to the Telecommunications Ministry. Diplomats must provide a residence permit, a house lease agreement, a work permit, a supporting letter from their embassy, two photographs, a diplomatic identification card, and two copies of their passport and visa. Other foreign citizens reported the need for a blood test and X-ray to screen for hepatitis C and tuberculosis. It was not clear whether the presence of those conditions would result in refusal of a SIM card.
The government used an extensive informer system to gather information.
Without notice, authorities reportedly entered homes, threatened family members, and sometimes took fathers away without explanation. Reports, particularly from rural areas, stated that security forces detained and interrogated the parents, spouses, or siblings of individuals who evaded national service or fled the country. Militia groups reportedly checked homes or whole neighborhoods to confirm attendance at national service projects.
Some girls, women, and men married and had children to avoid national service.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the law and unimplemented constitution provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, the government severely restricted these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The government severely restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government in public or in private through intimidation by national security forces.
Press and Media Freedom: The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of media and requires submission of documents, including books, to the government for approval prior to publication. The government controlled all domestic media, including one newspaper published in four languages, three radio stations, and two television stations.
The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials. The printing of a publication by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are both punishable under the law. Government approval is required for distribution of publications from religious or international organizations.
In July Ethiopian journalists working as stringers for the Associated Press were informed they would be denied visas on arrival to cover the visit of the Ethiopian prime minister to the country, and as a result, the airline did not allow them to board the inaugural flight from Ethiopia to Eritrea carrying officials, business persons, and other journalists. In August international journalists from Deutsche Welle were allowed access during a visit by Germany’s development minister.
The government did not prevent persons from installing satellite dishes that provided access to international cable television networks and programs. The use of satellite dishes was common nationwide in cities as well as villages. Access to South Africa’s Digital Satellite Television (DStv) required government approval, and a subscriber’s bill could be paid only in hard currency. Satellite radio stations operated by diaspora Eritreans reached listeners in the country. Citizens could also receive radio broadcasts originating in Ethiopia. In July following the peace agreement with Ethiopia, public places displayed Ethiopian television stations, and telephone services between Eritrea and Ethiopia were re-established.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not provide information on the location or health of journalists it detained in previous years and who were held incommunicado.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most independent journalists remained in detention or lived abroad, which limited domestic media criticism of the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain government permission to take photographs. Journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
National Security: The government repeatedly asserted national security concerns were the basis of limitations on free speech and expression.
The government monitored some internet communications, including email, without appropriate legal authority. Government informants frequented internet cafes. In order to use an internet cafe, patrons must present proof they had completed national service. The government discouraged citizens from viewing some opposition websites by labeling the sites and their developers as saboteurs. Some citizens expressed fear of arrest if caught viewing such sites. Nonetheless, the sites were generally available. In October 2017 after protests in Akhria, communication channels, internet access, and the telephone system were temporarily cut or jammed.
Eritel, a government-owned corporation, has a monopoly on providing land-based internet service. The use of internet cafes with limited bandwidth in Asmara and other large communities was widespread, but the vast majority of persons did not have access to the internet. According to most recent International Telecommunication Union data, 1.3 percent of the population used the internet in 2017. Internet users who needed larger bandwidth paid prices beyond the reach of most individuals.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Authorities monitored activities at private secondary schools and in some cases arbitrarily denied visas to foreign teachers or presented impediments to school administration, including restricting the import of teaching materials. Some parents of students in private schools charged that educational quality suffered because of disputes between government officials and school administrators.
With few exceptions, secondary school students must complete their final year of high school at the government’s Sawa National Training and Education Center. Students also had to complete military training at Sawa to be allowed to take entrance exams for institutions of higher education (see section 6, Children).
The government sometimes denied passports or exit visas to students and faculty who wanted to study or do research abroad. Some persons claimed authorities scrutinized academic travel for consistency of intent with government policies.
The government censored film showings and other cultural activities. It monitored libraries and cultural centers maintained by foreign embassies and in some instances questioned employees and users. The government directly sponsored most major cultural events or collaborated with various embassies and foreign cultural institutions in sponsoring musical performances by international performers. In late 2017, however, and early during the year, the embassies of two Western countries received public recognition for sponsoring cultural performances, and a group from one of the countries was broadcast on national television during the New Year celebrations.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law and unimplemented constitution provide for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. For some public gatherings, the government intermittently required those assembling to obtain permits. Authorities subjected gatherings of large groups of persons without prior approval to investigation and interference, with the exception of events that occurred in the context of meetings of government-affiliated organizations, were social in nature, or were events such as weddings, funerals, and religious observances of the four officially registered religious groups. During the October 2017 and March protests, the government did not provide any official data in connection with the arrests and detentions, or the number of persons injured or requiring treatment because of the excessive use of force by the security apparatus.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The unimplemented constitution provides citizens the right to form organizations for political, social, economic, and cultural ends. It specifies that their conduct must be open and transparent and that they must be guided by principles of national unity and democracy. The government did not respect freedom of association. It did not allow any political parties other than the PFDJ. It also prohibited the formation of civil society organizations except those with official sponsorship. The government generally did not allow local organizations to receive funding and other resources from or to associate with foreign and international organizations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law and unimplemented constitution provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted all these rights. It often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military duties or arbitrarily for no given reason. The government restricted travel of children with foreign passports whom it considered Eritrean nationals.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide protection and assistance in some areas, but it restricted UNHCR activities in others. The government defined refugee status differently than do the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. It did not recognize Ethiopians or Sudanese as refugees, although it allowed them to remain in the country and granted them residency permits. The government routinely provided protection to Somali refugees.
In-country Movement: The government requires citizens to notify local authorities when they change residence, although many did not. When traveling within the country, particularly in remote regions or near borders, authorities required citizens to provide justification for travel at the few checkpoints.
Travel restrictions on noncitizens lawfully in the country remained in effect. The government required all diplomats, international humanitarian workers, UN staff, and foreigners to request permission from the government at least 10 days in advance to travel more than 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) outside of Asmara. Authorities gave UNHCR staff a monthly permit to visit Umkulu Refugee Camp and permitted diplomats to visit the site in June to accompany the UN special envoy for the Somali refugee situation, Ambassador Mohamed Affey.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government required citizens, sometimes including dual nationals, to obtain exit visas. The government restricted travel of children with foreign passports whom it considered Eritrean nationals. Requirements for obtaining passports and exit visas were inconsistent and nontransparent. The government often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military or national service duties. Authorities generally did not give exit visas to children older than age five. Authorities granted few adolescents exit permits; many parents avoided seeking exit permits for children approaching national service draft age due to concern authorities might also deny the parents’ permission to travel. Categories of persons most commonly denied exit visas included men younger than age 40, lowered from 54, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than 30, unless they had children. The government did not generally grant exit permits to members of the citizen militia, although some whom authorities demobilized from national service or who had permission from their zone commanders were able to obtain them. Those citizens who previously qualified for international travel were permitted to travel to and from Ethiopia when flights between the two countries resumed. In September the president and Ethiopian prime minister opened two border-crossing points. For nationals of both countries, crossing these points does not require an entry visa, and Eritreans do not require exit visas or other travel documents. It was not clear how long this procedure would remain in effect.
The SR reported in June that instances of extrajudicial killings at the border continued and referred to the arbitrary killing of a young man who was trying to cross the border in July 2017. In 2017 Doctors without Borders also reported on the experience of some Eritreans who were shot trying to cross the border with Ethiopia.
Exile: There were reports of citizens who left the country without exit visas being denied re-entry. Many other citizens who fled the country remained in self-imposed exile due to their religious and political views and fear they would be conscripted into national service if they returned. Others reported there were no consequences for returning citizens who had residency or citizenship in other countries.
In general citizens had the right to return, but citizens residing abroad had to show proof they paid the 2 percent tax on foreign earned income to be eligible for some government services and documents, including exit permits, birth or marriage certificates, passport renewals, and real estate transactions. The government enforced this requirement inconsistently. Persons known to have broken laws abroad, contracted serious contagious diseases, or been declared ineligible for political asylum by other governments had their entry visas and visa requests considered with greater scrutiny. In August, Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh Mohammed stated in a press interview that Eritrean citizens “can come back voluntarily at any time.”
Citizenship: Most members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not perform military service continued to be unable to obtain official identification documents. They were not eligible for jobs in the formal economy or for ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to new refugees. The government has an Office of Refugee Affairs that works with UNHCR. Most refugees in the country were Somali. The government did not grant Ethiopians or Sudanese asylum, although it allowed them to remain in the country. The government required Ethiopians to pay an annual fee of 600 nakfa ($40) for a residency card. The card demonstrated the holder was not indigent.
Freedom of Movement: Most Somalis were restricted to Umkulu Refugee Camp.
Employment: There did not appear to be discrimination based on nationality in terms of employment or entitlements with the exception of that directed at resident Ethiopians, some of whom the government viewed as potential security risks. Refugees were not granted formal work permits but were allowed to work informally.
Access to Basic Services: Persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin living in the country sometimes claimed they received social entitlements commensurate with the perceived degree of their loyalty to the government, including ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.
Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Somalis were able to access basic government services upon procuring and presenting residency permits. UNHCR reported the suspension in the issuance of exit visas for Somali refugees in Umkulu Refugee Camp continued, and it raised concerns with the government regarding the implementation of durable solutions.
Durable Solutions: The government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status; however, authorities permitted them to remain in the country and to live among the local population instead of in a refugee camp. Authorities granted them residency permits that enabled them to access government services. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law and unimplemented constitution provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair elections, based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, but they were not able to exercise this ability.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The government came to power in a 1993 popular referendum, in which voters chose to have an independent country managed by a transitional government. This government did not permit the formation of a democratic system. The government twice scheduled elections in accordance with the constitution but canceled them without explanation. An official declaration in 2003 asserted, “In accordance with the prevailing wish of the people, it is not the time to establish political parties, and discussion of the establishment has been postponed.” Communities elect area administrators, magistrates, and managing directors.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The country is a one-party state. Political power rested with the PFDJ and its institutions. At times the government coerced persons to join the PFDJ.
Membership in the PFDJ was not mandatory, but authorities pressured some categories of individuals, particularly those occupying government positions, to join the party. Authorities reportedly visited citizens in their homes after they completed national service and compelled them to join the party and pay the required fees. Authorities occasionally convoked citizens to attend political indoctrination meetings as part of mandatory participation in the militia irrespective of PFDJ membership. Authorities denied benefits such as ration coupons to those who did not attend. Some citizens in the diaspora claimed convocations occurred at Eritrean embassies, with the names of those who did not attend reported to government officials, sometimes resulting in denial of benefits such as passport services.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and minorities in the political process, and they did participate.