SEPTEMBER 24, 2014
Twenty years ago, Eritrean authorities arrested three young men and detained them in harsh conditions in the Sawa prison camp, where they remain until this day. They have never been charged with a crime, nor have they been given the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. Why have they been unjustly imprisoned?
Paulos Eyassu, Negede Teklemariam, and Isaac Mogos are Jehovah’s Witnesses and conscientiously object to performing military service because of their strongly held religious beliefs. Had they been formally charged with the “crime” of refusing military service, they would have been sentenced to a fixed prison term. Paulos, Negede, and Isaac, now aged 41, 40, and 38 respectively, have spent their youth in confinement. They have been denied the opportunity to marry and have children, give support to their aging parents, or live their lives as they choose. They have also been denied the opportunity to worship with their fellow believers.
After their arrest on September 24, 1994, Paulos, Negede, and Isaac were treated severely, even tortured, by authorities in the Sawa prison camp. In recent years, however, the harsh treatment has ended, and their firm determination to remain loyal to their religious beliefs has earned them the respect of the prison guards.
Other Witnesses imprisoned in harsh conditions
It is in Eritrea, more than anywhere else in the world, that Jehovah’s Witnesses experience the most intense persecution. As of this writing, 73 Witnesses are in prison, including women, children, and the elderly. Many have endured under harsh desert conditions, lacking a balanced diet and sufficient water and being mistreated by prison officials. Three other Witness men have been imprisoned for more than ten years in the Sawa camp, but Paulos, Negede, and Isaac have been in detention the longest of any other Witnesses in Eritrea.
International community calls on Eritrea to end religious persecution
The international community is well-aware of Eritrea’s mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities.
Every year since 2004, the U.S. Department of State has designated Eritrea as a “country of particular concern,” which refers to “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed deep concern at the “grave violations of human rights by the Eritrean authorities against their own population and fellow citizens.” It calls upon the Eritrean government “to respect everyone’s right to freedom . . . of thought, conscience and religion or belief.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its Annual Report for 2014: “The religious freedom situation is particularly grave for . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
In its World Report 2013, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the Eritrean government continues to arrest, detain, and torture members of “unrecognized” religions and that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially victimized.”
In December 2005 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted Resolution on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea, which called on Eritrea to “guarantee, at all times, the right to a fair trial, freedom of opinion and expression as well as the right to peaceful assembly.”
Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke for Witnesses worldwide when he said: “It is our fervent hope that the government of Eritrea will release all Witness prisoners, including these three men who have been detained for 20 years, and bring an end to the persecution of our fellow believers.”