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Imprisoned for Their Faith​—Eritrea

Imprisoned for Their Faith​—Eritrea

For many years, the Eritrean government has arrested and imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses—including women and the elderly—without trial or formal charges for religious activity or for undisclosed reasons. President Afwerki revoked the Witnesses’ citizenship by a presidential decree dated October 25, 1994, because they did not participate in the 1993 independence referendum and they conscientiously object to military service. Prior to enforcing conscription, the authorities in Eritrea provided for genuine alternative civilian service. Numerous Witnesses took part in this service under different government administrations. The authorities systematically issued “Certificates of Completed National Service” and often praised the participants for their work. On the basis of the presidential decree, however, security forces have imprisoned, tortured, and harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses in an effort to force them to renounce their faith.

Thirty-six Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in prison at this time (26 males and 10 females). Twenty-eight Jehovah’s Witnesses (26 males and 2 females) were set free on December 4, 2020, after being imprisoned for their faith for between 5 and 26 years each. On January 29, 2021, one male Witness was released after being imprisoned for over 12 years, and an additional three Witnesses were released on February 1, 2021 (one male and two females). They had been imprisoned for between four and nine years.

Witnesses Die Because of Severe Prison Conditions

Four Witnesses have died while imprisoned in Eritrea, and three elderly Witnesses have died after their release from prison because of the harsh conditions they experienced while detained.

In 2018, two Witnesses died after their transfer to the Mai Serwa Prison. Habtemichael Tesfamariam died at age 76 on January 3, and Habtemichael Mekonen died at age 77 on March 6. Eritrean authorities imprisoned both men in 2008 without charges.

In 2011 and 2012, two Witnesses died because of the inhumane treatment in the Meitir Prison Camp. Misghina Gebretinsae, aged 62, died in July 2011 as a result of the extreme heat he experienced in a punishment area described as the “underground.” Yohannes Haile, aged 68, died on August 16, 2012, after almost four years of imprisonment under similar conditions. Three elderly Witnesses, Kahsai Mekonnen, Goitom Gebrekristos, and Tsehaye Tesfariam, died after their release as a result of the conditions they endured while in custody in the Meitir Camp.

Recommendations by Preeminent Human Rights Bodies Ignored

Eritrea persists in disregarding international human rights standards. Major human rights bodies have condemned the violations of basic rights and continue urging Eritrea to rectify the situation.

In 2014, the Human Rights Council (HRC) welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, which urged the authorities to respect the right of conscientious objection “in accordance with international norms” and to “guarantee the physical integrity of all prisoners; ensure access to medical treatment for those in need . . . and improve the conditions of detention in accordance with international standards.” In a 2015 resolution, the HRC called upon the government of Eritrea to “provide for conscientious objection to military service.”

In 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea determined that Eritrean authorities have committed a “crime against humanity” because of their “persecution on both religious and ethnic grounds” of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.

In 2017, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) expressed its concern that despite the existence of legal protections, “children who belong to the Jehovah Witnesses” are not able to enjoy the benefits of this right and face harsh treatment. The ACERWC recommended that Eritrea “recognise and fully implement a child’s Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion with no discrimination.”

In 2018, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recommended that Eritrea “take urgent measures to address the denial of basic rights of all detained persons, including . . . members of the Jehovah Witness faith” and called for an investigation of the reported deaths of Witnesses in detention. The commission emphasized the need for Eritrea to ensure that Jehovah’s Witnesses “retain their citizenship rights.”

In May 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) urged Eritrea to guarantee the effective exercise of freedom of religion and belief and to “release all persons arrested or detained for exercising their freedom of religion, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The CCPR also requested that Eritrea “ensure the legal recognition of conscientious objection to military service and provide for alternative service of a civilian nature for conscientious objectors.”

In a report dated May 12, 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur called upon the Eritrean government to “immediately and unconditionally release all those who remain in prison without charge or trial because of their faith or belief, including 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and to “review the decisions to strip Jehovah’s Witnesses of their citizenship because of their religious affiliation, respect the recommendation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to ensure that Jehovah’s Witnesses retain their citizenship rights, and investigate the reported deaths in detention of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Indefinite Prison Sentences

Most of the imprisoned male Witnesses are incarcerated indefinitely, with no hope of release until they die or are near death. Since there are no effective domestic legal procedures or remedies available to them, their imprisonment amounts to a de facto life sentence.

Time Line

  1. January 15, 2024

    Total of 36 Witnesses imprisoned.

  2. February 1, 2021

    Three Witnesses are released from prison.

  3. January 29, 2021

    One Witness is released from prison.

  4. December 4, 2020

    Twenty-eight Witnesses are released from prison.

  5. March 6, 2018

    Death of Habtemichael Mekonen, aged 77, after his transfer to the Mai Serwa Prison.

  6. January 3, 2018

    Death of Habtemichael Tesfamariam, aged 76, after his transfer to the Mai Serwa Prison.

  7. July 2017

    All Witnesses detained in the Meitir Camp are transferred to the Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.

  8. July 25, 2014

    Most of those arrested on April 14 are released, but 20 of those arrested on April 27 are yet detained.

  9. April 27, 2014

    Thirty-one Witnesses arrested during a Bible study meeting.

  10. April 14, 2014

    More than 90 Witnesses arrested during the annual observance of the Memorial of Christ’s death.

  11. August 16, 2012

    Death of Yohannes Haile, aged 68, while imprisoned under extreme conditions.

  12. July 2011

    Death of Misghina Gebretinsae, aged 62, while imprisoned under extreme conditions.

  13. June 28, 2009

    Authorities raid a Witness home during a religious service and arrest all 23 Witnesses present, ages 2 to 80.

  14. April 28, 2009

    Authorities transfer all but one of Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed in police stations to the Meitir Prison Camp.

  15. July 8, 2008

    Authorities begin raids of homes and places of work to arrest 24 Witnesses, most of them breadwinners of their families.

  16. May 2002

    Government closes down all religious groups not operating under the four government-approved faiths.

  17. October 25, 1994

    Presidential decree stripping Jehovah’s Witnesses of citizenship and basic civil rights.

  18. September 17, 1994

    Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam imprisoned without charge or trial.

  19. 1940s

    First communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are established in Eritrea.