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ERITREA: ARBITRARY DETENTION OF AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST DAWIT ISAAK FOR 22 YEARS

The International League Against Arbitrary Detention urges the Government of Eritrea to take all the necessary actions to implement the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Opinion No. 10/2023 concerning Dawit Isaak starting for the Government of Eritrea to immediately and unconditionally release Dawit Isaak and to accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations in accordance with international law.


Read the full WGAD Opinion concerning Dawit Isaak (Eritrea): Opinion No. 10/2023


UNLAWFULLY ARRESTED, SUBJECTED TO ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE AND DETAINED FOR 22 YEARS


Dawit Isaak is a national of Eritrea and Sweden, born on 27 October 1964. Mr. Isaak is a playwright, author and journalist. Mr. Isaak emigrated to Sweden from Eritrea in 1987 and he obtained Swedish citizenship. He returned to Eritrea in 1993 to work at Setit, one of the country’s first independent newspapers. In 2000, Mr. Isaak, his wife and their three children allegedly fled Eritrea due to the political turmoil at the time. Mr. Isaak returned to Eritrea in 2001 to continue his work as a journalist and advocate for the easing of restrictions on the free press.


Mr. Isaak was arrested at his home in Asmara on 23 September 2001 by plainclothes policemen without any legal justification for the arrest, which the Working Group found in violation of articles 3 and 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 9 (1) and (2) of the Covenant, rendering his arrest devoid of any legal basis. In addition, Mr. Isaak has been denied the opportunity to be heard before an independent and impartial tribunal as well as the right to challenge the legality of his detention. The Working Group found that Mr. Isaak was unable to challenge the legality of his detention before a court under article 9 (4) of the Covenant, violating also his right to an effective remedy under article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 2 (3) of the Covenant. 


Mr. Isaak has reportedly been detained for more than 22 years at an undisclosed location, during which time he has been denied access to his family, consular assistance and counsel, effectively resulting in his incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance. The Government has chosen not to contest these allegations although it had the opportunity to do so. The Working Group noted that enforced disappearances are prohibited by international law and constitute a particularly aggravated form of arbitrary detention. Holding persons at secret, undisclosed locations and in circumstances undisclosed to their family violates their right to contest the legality of their detention before a court or tribunal under article 9 (4) of the Covenant. The detention of Mr. Isaak lacks any valid legal basis under any circumstance and is also inherently arbitrary as it placed Mr. Isaak him outside the protection of the law, in violation of article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 16 of the Covenant. 


Consequently, the Working Group found that the Government failed to establish any legal basis for Mr. Isaak’s detention, rendering his detention arbitrary under category I.


PERSECTUTED AS A RESULT OF HIS ACTIVITIES AS A HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER


Mr. Isaak was exercising his right to freedom of opinion and expression by protesting against the Government’s alleged crackdown on independent press through his involvement in Setit’s publication of an open letter and through other expressions of political thought. In addition, he was reportedly detained five days after having protested with his colleagues against the reported crackdown on independent media and closure of independent newspapers in the country. The Working Group concluded that Mr. Isaak’s detention resulted from the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, as well as his right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, contrary to articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 19, 21, 22 and 25 of the Covenant, rendering his detention arbitrary under category II. 


In addition, the Working Group recalled that detaining individuals on the basis of their activities as human rights defenders violates their right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 26 of the Covenant. The Working Group therefore concluded that Mr. Isaak was deprived of his liberty on discriminatory grounds, that is, owing to his status as a human rights defender, and on the basis of his political or other opinion in seeking to hold the authorities to account. His deprivation of liberty is therefore arbitrary under category V as well.


SUBJECTED TO ACTS OF TORTURE THAT BLATANTLY VIOLATED HIS RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL


In the present case, although his family was able to secure a lawyer in Sweden, Mr. Isaak has not been able to access legal representation in Eritrea or to communicate with any lawyer since his arrest. In addition, the Working Group noted that during his pretrial detention for more than 22 years, Mr. Isaak was allegedly subjected to acts of torture through his secret and prolonged detention in inhumane detention conditions, including poor hygiene, lack of access to medical care, ventilation and nutrition, and overcrowding, leading to Mr. Isaak's hospitalization in April 2002 to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from torture. 


The Working Group recalled that torture or ill-treatment of detainees not only is a grave violation of human rights, but also seriously undermines the fundamental principles of a fair trial as it can compromise the ability to defend oneself, especially in the light of the right not to be compelled to testify against oneself or to confess guilt. Detainees should be protected from any practices that violate their right to be free from any act that could cause severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, and that is inflicted intentionally on a person. Therefore, the Working Group concluded that the violations of the right to a fair trial of Mr. Isaak under article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 14 of the Covenant were of such gravity as to give his detention an arbitrary character under category III.


CONCLUSIONS OF THE UN WORKING GROUP AGAINST ARBITRARY DETENTION


In light of the foregoing, the UN Working Group Against Arbitrary Detention considered that the detention of Mr. Dawit Isaak was arbitrary and fell under categories I, II, III and V because his deprivation of liberty was in contravention of articles 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2, 9, 14, 16, 19, 21, 22, 25 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


The Working Group expresseed its utmost concern regarding the source’s unrebutted allegation that Mr. Isaak has been in pretrial detention for more than 22 years without being charged and without any prospect of trial. The Working Group noted with alarm that the location of Mr. Isaak remains unknown to this day. It urged the Government to provide information about the situation and whereabouts of Mr. Isaak without delay, in particular the exact location of his ongoing deprivation of liberty. The Working Group considered that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to unconditionally release Mr. Isaak immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.

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