Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

African Press Freedom in discussion

20 February 2013

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is discussing a major case for African press freedom this week in the city of Banjul, The Gambia.

The case of imprisoned Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been imprisoned since 2011, is being referred to the Commission during an extra session taking place Feb. 18-25, Reporters Without Borders reported on Feb. 18.

Isaak, who was arrested without a charge or sentence, has been imprisoned in solitary confinement for more than a decade. He has not been allowed to see his family, lawyer, Swedish diplomats or the International Red Cross, RSF reports.

In a phone interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen Kassem Hamada, former Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed said that neither he nor other ministers knew the whereabouts of Isaak. Only Eritrea’s President Isaias Asmara and his closest security officials, Ahmed said, knew where Isaak and other “dissidents” were held, according to

“[It is] taboo to ask about things that are not related to one’s job,” Ahmed said in the report.

RSF fears that Isaak’s life is in danger, as the report details that several of his colleagues have died in prison. An RSF investigation conducted in August of 2012 found that three journalists arrested at about the same time of Isaak’s arrest had died in a prison camp.

The ACHPR, created by the African Union (AU) to protect and promote human rights and to interpret the African Charter, consists of 11 members elected by the AU Assembly from nominations by state parties to the Union, according to the Commission’s website.

RSF reports that the Commission could try Eritrea on whether it respects the Human Rights and The African Charter the country ratified. It could also demand explanations to the government as to why Isaak’s imprisonment breaches several African and international conventions.

“According to the principle of Habeas Corpus every prisoner has the right to meet a judge and have his say,” RSF said in the Feb. 18 report. “The judge will then decide whether the imprisonment as such is legal or not.”

Had Eritrean law been respected, RSF argues, Isaak would have been charged within a month or otherwise set free.

Isaak’s Swedish lawyer Jesús Alcalá will attend the session with lawyers Percy Bratt and Prisca Orsonneau. Alcalá sent a writ for Habeas Corpus to the high court of Eritrea in June of 2011.

"The fact that the Commission has taken up our request means that it has found our submission substantial,” Alcalá said in the Feb. 18 RSF report. “It is an important first step in what I hope will result in a ruling against Eritrea. In that case, the Commission, who is the African Union’s main human rights body, will demand the release of Dawit Isaak.”

Eritrea is often accused by human rights watchdogs of being one of the world’s worst offenders, according to Reuters. In 2011, the agency reported that Amnesty International and the European Parliament demanded the release of 11 former government officials in 2001 that President Asmara arrested in 2001 following their criticism of the lack of reforms in Eritrea after its war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. The parliament also voted in 2011 for the release of Isaak and demanded to be given access to him to determine his health care needs.

The Swedish website is devoted to arguing for Isaak’s release.

By Nassim Benchaabane. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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