Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture. Reports of torture, however, continued.
In August 2019 Human Rights Watch published a report documenting that security forces tortured, including by beating, prisoners, army deserters, national service evaders, persons attempting to flee the country without travel documents, and members of certain religious groups.
Former prisoners described two specific forms of punishment by security forces known as “helicopter” and “8.” For “helicopter,” prisoners lie face down on the ground and their hands and legs are tied behind them. For “8,” they are tied to a tree. Prisoners were often forced to stay in either position for 24-48 hours, in some cases longer, and only released to eat or to relieve themselves. 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.
Lack of transparency and access to information made it impossible to determine the numbers or circumstances of deaths due to torture or other abuse.
Impunity remained a serious problem among security forces. The government did not release any information to indicate it had conducted investigations of alleged abuses, making it difficult to assess the extent of the problem among the different branches of the services.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Detention conditions reportedly remained harsh, leading to serious damage to health 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 police, and the Ministry of Defense oversees those run by the military. Unofficial detention centers housed those accused of political crimes. 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 death rates 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. There was no available information to determine whether the government took action against persons responsible for detainee deaths.
Authorities are believed to have continued the practice of holding some detainees incommunicado in metal shipping containers and underground cells without toilets or beds. The government did not consistently provide adequate basic or emergency medical care in prisons or detention centers. Food, sanitation, ventilation, and lighting were inadequate, and potable water was sometimes available only for purchase.
Former prisoners described prolonged food shortages, which sometimes led to anemia or even the need for hospitalization. One former prisoner claimed to have been without food for 42 days. Other former prisoners reported no such issues.
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.
The government did not grant consular access to detained dual-national citizens, whom it considers to be only Eritrean. Authorities generally did not permit family visits with persons detained, arrested, or convicted for national security reasons; they permitted visits with those held for other reasons. Former prisoners reported some religious literature was considered contraband, and its possession could result in torture. International religious organizations claimed authorities interrogated detainees regarding their religious affiliation and asked them to identify members of unauthorized religious groups.
According to international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the government released persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Between July and December, 101 Muslims arrested in 2018 and 143 Christians held for between two and 26 years were released. Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted the release of the Christians was conditional on the submission of property deeds. There were reports, however, that the government arrested 45 Christians in April and June.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit monitoring of prisoner conditions by independent government or nongovernmental observers or by international bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The government also did not provide the ICRC with information about or access to reported Ethiopian and Djiboutian prisoners of war detained in the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not observe these provisions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law stipulates that, unless a crime is 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 for 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 their detention. Authorities sometimes arbitrarily changed charges during detention. The law provides for a bail system, but bail was often arbitrarily denied, and bail amounts were capriciously set.
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. 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 for unspecified national security threats. Authorities also continued to arrest members of unregistered Christian groups. In April authorities reportedly arrested 15 Christians for attending services, and in June they arrested 30 Christians at a wedding. Many of these individuals, particularly women and children, were reportedly released soon thereafter, but it was unknown how many, if any, remained in detention.
There were unverified reports that security forces arrested at least 20 Muslim men in Mendefera and neighboring localities for unknown reasons in November 2019. Those arrested reportedly included local businessmen, religious teachers, and community leaders, many of whom remain unaccounted for.
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 identify those unwilling to participate in the militia.
Some 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 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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regarding treatment of refugees inside the country. The government defined refugee status differently than do the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The government continued downsizing the Umkulu Refugee Camp. Of the more than 2,100 refugees housed at the camp in 2018, only 80 remained in the country as of October. Most of those who left have relocated to refugee camps in Ethiopia.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not recognize Ethiopians, Sudanese, or South Sudanese as refugees, instead considering them economic migrants. The government, however, allowed these refugees to remain in the country.
Employment: Refugees were not granted formal work permits, but some worked 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.
Durable Solutions: Although the government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status, 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 gave them access to government services. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison if convicted, or up to 16 years in aggravated cases (such as those that inflict serious bodily injury, involve a minor or someone under the perpetrator’s care, or involve a group of perpetrators). The law makes no distinction based on the gender of the assailant or the victim. Rape between spouses is punishable only when the spouses have permanently separated.
While the law does not specifically criminalize domestic violence, assault carries a punishment that varies based on the seriousness of the crime, ranging from nine months to 19 years in prison. Authorities rarely intervened in domestic violence cases.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C for both women and girls. Government efforts to reduce FGM/C included public awareness campaigns at the local level targeting religious and community leaders. Government reports stated certain regions and subzones were considered 100 percent free of FGM/C practices. Local UN representatives confirmed that the government took FGM/C seriously as a problem and acted credibly to combat the practice. The UN Population Fund worked with the government and other organizations, including the National Union of Eritrean Women and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, on a variety of education programs to discourage the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not specifically criminalize sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and they may do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The Ministry of Health promoted modern contraceptive means and took steps to inform women throughout the country of these means. Contraception was provided free of charge in many cases; however, in more rural areas, women still lacked access or information. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that from 2010 to 2019 only 21 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.
While the government took steps to ensure the attendance of skilled health personnel at births, according to the WHO, only 34 percent of births from 2010 to 2019 were so attended. Barriers included education and transportation.
The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including emergency contraception and postexposure prophylaxis for HIV.
According to the WHO, the maternal death rate was an estimated 480 deaths per 100,000 live births. The high maternal death rate was likely due to such factors as limited health-care services, particularly in rural areas. No information was available on the adolescent birth rate. While this has traditionally been a problem in the country and likely contributed to high maternal death rates, the government has made a concerted effort to convince individuals to delay marriage and childbirth.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by government authorities.
Discrimination: Family, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws provide men and women the same status and rights. The law requires equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women, particularly in rural areas, continued to face economic and social discrimination. The government did not enforce the law effectively.
Section 7. Worker Rights
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced labor and slavery, but forced labor occurred. The government enforced these laws within private industry; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes. The legal definition of forced labor excludes activities performed under national service or other civic obligations, compulsory labor for convicted prisoners, and “communal services rendered during an emergency.” Labor protections limiting hours of work and prohibiting harsh conditions do not apply to persons conscripted into national service.
The country’s national service obligation in some cases amounted to a form of forced labor. By law all citizens between ages 18 and 50, with limited exceptions, must perform national service. The national service obligation consists of six months of military training and 12 months of active military or civilian national service, for a total of 18 months, or, for those unfit to undergo military training, 18 months of service in any public and government organ. During times of emergency, however, the government can suspend the 18-month limit, which it did in 1998 with the outbreak of the war with Ethiopia. The government has not rescinded emergency rule. The result is an indefinite extension of the duration of national service, in some cases for more than 20 years. Pay for conscripts improved in recent years, but remained very low. The law provides for assignment to a job category according to the person’s capacity and profession, but this was not always followed in practice. There is no provision for alternative service for conscientious objectors.
Forced labor occurred. Despite the 18-month legal limit on national service, the government did not demobilize many conscripts from the military or from civilian national service as scheduled and forced some to serve indefinitely in national service under threats of detention, torture, or punishment of their families. Persons performing national service could not resign, generally received no promotions, and could rarely leave the country legally because authorities denied them passports or exit visas. Those conscripted into national service performed standard patrols and border monitoring in addition to labor such as agricultural terracing, planting, road maintenance, hotel work, teaching, construction, and laying power lines, as well as many office jobs in government ministries, agencies, and state-owned enterprises. There were reports that some conscripts were additionally required to perform manual labor on national service projects unrelated to their assignment and for which they received no overtime payment. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Canada in 2014 alleged that, as conscripts in national service, they were required to work 72-hour weeks in a mine for between 11 and 17 years before fleeing the country.
The government required those not already in the military to attend civilian militia training and carry firearms, including many who were demobilized, the elderly, and persons otherwise exempted from military service. Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention. Militia duties mostly involved security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training involved occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws prohibit employment and occupation discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, social origin, nationality, political orientation, or religion. The law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, language, or age. It is unclear whether the government effectively enforced antidiscrimination laws; levied penalties were not made public and might not have been commensurate with penalties for breaking other laws related to civil rights.
Discrimination against women was common in the workplace and occurred in an environment of impunity. The law does not criminalize sexual harassment (see section 6, Women).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage for employees of People’s Front-owned enterprises and government employees was below the international poverty line. There was no national minimum wage for private sector workers. The law provides for a standard workweek of 48 hours and no more than two hours per day of overtime, but it includes exceptions for when someone is missing or when there is “urgent work.” The law entitles workers, except for those employed in national service, to overtime pay, but this was not always enforced. The legal rest period is one day per week, although most employees received one and one-half days. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.
No published occupational health and safety standards existed. Each government enterprise has a separate agreement with the local union defining the work standards, including occupational health and safety regulations, for that enterprise. There were 168 government enterprises in the country, accounting for most large-scale employers.
The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for worker safety and welfare. The ministry employed 28 inspectors, which was insufficient to the need. The government did not effectively enforce the negotiated standards. The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers reported that every enterprise has an inspection at least once per year, which is then reviewed by the enterprise, the union, and the ministry. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and demand changes, but may not initiate sanctions.
Approximately 80 percent of the population was employed in subsistence farming and small-scale retail trading. There were no reliable data on the informal economy and no effective mechanisms for monitoring conditions or protecting workers in the informal economy.
The government did not report information regarding abuses of wage, overtime, safety, or health standards. There was no information on major industrial accidents during the year.