Torture and Prison Await

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees applied last week to the foreign ministry in Stockholm in an effort to ascertain why Sweden is trying to deport an Eritrean citizen to Asmara despite warnings by the UN and various other organizations about widespread human rights violations documented in that African country.

Most European countries do not deport Eritrean asylum seekers. Exceptions include the deportation of an Eritrean woman from Germany two years ago, and of an Eritrean man from Britain a few months ago. Amnesty International reported their arrest on arriving in Asmara.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritrean citizens have fled their homeland since President Isaias Afewerki came to power in the early 1990s. Most were escaping military or national service, which is imposed at age 18 for a protracted and undefined length of time.

"According to international reports, repatriating Eritreans might place their lives in danger, expose them to torture and imprisonment under inhuman conditions," says lawyer Anat Ben Dor, director of the legal aid clinic on refugee rights at Tel Aviv University. "If Israel, contrary to all the reports, returns those who have come here, it would be in violation of international law and we would file a petition against it."

The Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees prohibits sending people back to a country where they would be exposed to torture. Reports composed by the U.S. State Department, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the British Foreign Office, and others, contain detailed descriptions of the torture methods employed against deserters and opponents of the regime in Eritrea.

The State Department's 2007 human rights report on Eritrea, released this month, states: "Security forces severely mistreated and beat army deserters, draft evaders, persons attempting to flee the country without travel documents and exit permits, and members of certain religious groups. Security forces subjected deserters and draft evaders to such disciplinary actions as prolonged sun exposure in temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and the binding of hands, elbows, and feet for extended periods."

According to the report, Eritrea's human rights record is among the worst in Africa. The Eritrean government last Saturday rejected these accusations, claiming they were based on unsubstantiated rumors, exaggerations and inventions. Eritrea claims the U.S. is motivated by growing ties to the regime in Ethiopia, Eritrea's sworn enemy in an ongoing border dispute. But Amnesty International reports similar findings.

If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decides to deport the 2,800 Eritrean asylum seekers who are in Israel, he will arouse the wrath of the international community. Hopefully, Olmert's asking the Foreign Ministry to conduct talks with the Eritrean Embassy in Israel is meant only to deter additional refugees from arriving.