The Global Magnitsky Act Shines Spotlight on Eritreas’s Human Rights Abuses

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The Global Magnitsky Act Shines Spotlight on Eritreas’s Human Rights Abuses
New international ‘smart sanctions’ allowfor a swifter and directtargetingof human rightsviolators

Earlier this month, the world media reported widely on the mass arrests in Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the Kingdom’s newly launched anti-corruption campaign. The sting operation ensnared many members of the ruling elite, including dozens of princes and government ministers. Most experts suspect that the move served merely as a pretext; a possible power play by King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aimed at cementing their rule.

Sixteen years ago, another leader conducted a similar sweep among his country’s elites. In a bold move, he incarcerated dozens of government ministers, military chiefs, students, as well as prominent journalists. In contrast, the news caused barely a ripple in the international press at the time. This was not surprising since the leader in question was President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, a small and impoverished nation in the Horn of Africa, which had gained independence only in 1993. The justification for the crackdown put forward by Afewerki – that it was a response to an unspecified internal “security threat” – was met with due skepticism, at home and abroad. The fact that the arrests had occurred in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001 suggested a well timed attempt by the Eritrean President to rid himself of an increasingly vocal opposition.

Among those detained were former veterans of Eritrea’s decade long war of independence with Ethiopia (1981-1991), members of the country’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), as well as numerous journalists. They included the so-called ‘G-15’, a group of government officials and ministers who in May 2001 published an open letter, calling on President Afewerki to implement Eritrea’s Constitution and to respect civil and political rights. In response, Afewerki ordered the closure of all non-governmental media outlets and the arrest of everyone who had joined the protest against him.

The list of detainees is a Who-is-Who of Eritrea:

Petros Solomon (b. 1951, Foto: Petros Solomon), a former Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1994-1997), Solomon served as a military commander of the ELF/EPLF (Eritrean Liberation Front, later named the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), during Eritrea’s war of independence.

Haile Woldense (b. 1946), co-founder of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), together with Isaias Afewerki. He was appointed Eritrea’s first Minister of Finance and Development of. He also later served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1997-2000) and Minister of Trade and Industry (2000-2001).

Aster Solomon/Yohannes (Foto: Aster Yohannes), the wife of Petros Solomon. She was arrested in December 2003, after returning from the U.S. to search for her husband and to be with her four children. During the 1990s she worked with the Eritrean Fishery and Marine resources, before leaving to pursue university studies in the U.S. Like her husband, she is a veteran of the EPLF.

Haile Woldense (b. 1946), co-founder of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), together with Isaias Afewerki. He was appointed Eritrea’s first Minister of Finance and Development of. He also later served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1997-2000) and Minister of Trade and Industry (2000-2001).

Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo (b. 1948), a veteran of the ELF, he became Eritrea’s second Minister of Foreign Affairs (1993-1994) and, later, Minister of Local Government (2000-2001)

Aster Fissehatsion (b. 1951), the former wife of Mamoud Ahmed Sherifo. A member of the PFDJ and Director of the Ministry of Labor and Social Service.

Salih Edris Kekya (b. 1950), a former Minister of Transport and Communication (19970-2001)

Dawit Isaak (b. 1964), a dual Eritrean-Swedish citizen. At the time of his arrest, Isaak was a co-owner and contributing writer for Setit, Eritrea’s first independent newspaper. Setit, along with other Eritrean newspapers, published an open letter by the “G-15” in May 2001, calling on President Afewerki to respect the country’s laws and to implement Eritrea’s Constitution.

Seyoum Tsehaye (b.1952, Foto: Seyoum Tsehaye), the former head of Eritrean Television and Radio. In 2007, he was named ‘Reporter of the Year’ by Reporters without Borders; and many others.

In all the years that have passed, none of the individuals detained has been formally charged with a crime or been given a formal hearing. They have been kept in deplorable conditions, often in strict isolation, without any contact with the outside world, including no access to their families or legal counsel. Amnesty International has formally recognized all of them as prisoners of conscience, subject to severe deprivation and torture. Many have reportedly died, but no reliable information is available from inside Eritrea.

The international community appears unable and possibly unwilling to effectively challenge these disappearances. Eritrea’s geopolitical importance, with its strategic location in the Horn of Africa – central in the fight against radical Islamist terrorist groups – across from Yemen, with port access to the Red Sea, presents international power brokers with complex challenges. The long-standing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea are exacerbated by a festering border conflict that in 1998 turned into war which claimed thousands of lives and has eluded all efforts of creating a lasting settlement, including international arbitration.

Today, President Afewerki remains securely in power, while his country ranks among one of the world’s poorest and most repressive nations. However, the country’s mining resources, including gold, silver and other precious metals, continue to attract foreign investors.[1] Mining operations, along with many other key jobs in the Eritrean economy, especially construction, are staffed with Eritrean laborers who are forced to participate in the compulsory national military service, which is open-ended and so oppressive that some, including Sheila Keetheruth, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, have equated the conditions to slavery.

Afewerki, who received his military training in China in the late 1960s, during the height of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, holds his country in an iron grip, squashing any prospects of the rise of an effective, internal opposition. The Eritrean government has for years simply refused to engage with outside entities, choosing to ignore or outright reject all formal approaches about the country’s abysmal human rights record, including those made by foreign diplomats, religious groups or international aid organizations, including the International Red Cross.

According to various international conventions and legal norms, such as the International Convention on Protecting all Persons from Enforced Disappearance which was adopted in December 2006 and entered into force in 2010, victims of repression as well as their families have a legally recognized Right to the Truth. But what good is that right if it cannot be enforced?   In the aftermath of World War II, the global community has made great strides towards holding major human rights violators accountable, through the creation of an International Criminal Court (ICC) and related entities, such as international Truth Commissions. However, it has been less successful at stopping human rights violations as they are occurring, in real time, or preventing such crimes altogether. As a result, victims’ families and their advocates are looking for new or rather supplemental ways to focus the world’s attention on their plight.

A possible listing of Eritrean officials actively involved in past and current human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act could prove to be a powerful tool in this fight. The new law, which sanctions human rights violators by restricting their international travel and by freezing their financial assets held in foreign bank accounts, could seriously bother Afewerki and his cronies. The legislation which was first passed in the U.S. in 2016 is the result of a decade-long campaign by the international businessman Bill Browder.

It has already spawned passage of similar laws in Canada, Estonia and Great Britain. The Magnitsky Act honors Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer, who in 2007 exposed a major fraud committed by members of Russian organized crime, with suspected collusion of Russian authorities, against Heritage Capital, a British investment fund owned by Browder. Magnitsky was brutally killed in a Russian prison as a direct result of his reporting of the crime. (Fotos: Sergei Magnitsky / Bill Browder Foto: Tomas Oneborg)

“Magnitsky sanctions are so effective”, says Browder, “because they punish the select few who are responsible for corruption and human rights abuses, while sparing the ordinary citizens. In the case of Russia, the consequences for the people entered on the Magnitsky list are clear – they can no longer travel freely to the United States or Canada and, just as importantly, they can’t open bank accounts with any reputable bank in most places around the world. Restricting their ability to move or use their money has been extremely debilitating for them.”

Aside from adding a new set of ‘smart tools’ to the arsenal of human rights defenders, Browder’s efforts have also done much to return the spotlight squarely on the individual victims themselves and the abuse they have suffered.Dawit Isaak, an accomplished Eritrean writer who holds Swedish citizenship, is the 2017 recipient of UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. He now ranks among the world’s longest imprisoned journalists. The jury cited its wish to recognize Isaak “for his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.” This past October, Isaak was also short listed for the E.U.’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

His wife and three children live in Sweden and have not had news from their father and husband since 2005, when he was briefly released, only to be immediately detained again. Since then, the Swedish government has mainly relied on a strategy of silent diplomacy, behind-the-scenes discussions with the Eritrean leadership that have so far failed to yield Isaak’s release. Criticism of the approach, especially the government’s apparent unwillingness to make any adjustments to its handling of the case, is mounting, with many leading human rights activists worrying that time is running out for Isaak and his colleagues. In lieu of punitive measures, Swedish political and business leaders insist that bilateral trade as well as economic aid furthers good relations and opens up important channels of communications. Björn Tunbäck, a Board Member of the Swedish section of Reporters without Borders (RUG) and one of the leaders of the campaign to win Isaak’s release, does not argue with the theory, but sees no real follow through of the idea in practice.”If diplomats do not show any willingness to use these channels,” he says, “they become meaningless.

But it is not only diplomats that are hesitant to pursue more decisive steps. In 2014, the Swedish parliament enacted legislation that significantly strengthened the country’s commitment to ‘universal jurisdiction’, a legal principle that allows prosecution of human rights abuses   irrespective of where and by whom the crime was originally committed. However, a request by Dawit Isaak’s legal team filed with Sweden’s State Prosecutor to open a formal criminal investigation against the Eritrean leadership for crimes against humanity was rejected. The Prosecutor’s Office argued that such an investigation would have little chances of success, since it requires the cooperation of the Eritrean government. After consulting with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden’s Prosecutor General declined to overturn the decision on appeal. Foreign Ministry officials had expressed concerns about the potentially negative impact an official investigation could have on Swedish-Eritrean relations. In his written response, the Prosecutor General stressed, however, that the crimes committed against Dawit Isaak do indeed meet the standard of crimes against humanity and that prosecution on these grounds should be considered to move ahead.

While both European and African Union officials acknowledge that the human rights situation in Eritrea is dire, the quest to seek a meaningful response from the Eritrean government is often marked by a curious lack of urgency. The petition Dawit Isaak’s lawyers filed five years ago with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has wound its way excruciatingly slowly through the organization’s bureaucratic maze. The filing was prompted in part by the decision of Eritrea’s High Court in Asmara to ignore a writ of ‘habeas corpus’ filed on Isaak’s behalf in July 2011. Meanwhile, in 2015, the European Union agreed to extend its humanitarian aid package to Eritrea, which imposed only minimal conditions regarding human rights. At least the complaint filed with the African Union has forced the Eritrean government into responding to the motion about Dawit Isaak, but there is no indication that any effective action can or will be taken soon to ease his plight and that of his fellow detainees.

A filing under the Global Magnitsky Act may now force Eritrea’s hand and may help to resolve some of the world’s most serious and enduring disappearance cases. The Canadian government is proceeding swiftly with implementation of its new Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. Since the law’s adoption this past October, Canada has already sanctioned a total of 52 individuals from Sudan, Burma, Russia and Venezuela. In the U.S., where more than 40 persons have been included on the official sanctions list for Russia alone, the continued application of the Global Magnitsky Act has encountered an unexpected new hurdle. A month ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the closing of the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Office. The plan is to fold its responsibilities into a number of regional offices, leaving open the question how exactly the Magnitsky sanctions will now be implemented.

Background – Eritrea

Eritreans have virtually no means of expressing dissent or the possibility of meaningful political participation. 2,000 Eritreans on average flee their home country every month. Much has been made by E.U. and U.S. lawmakers about combating the causes for this exodus which, together with a war torn Middle East, has left Europe struggling to cope with a stream of refugees. The cataclysmic consequences of this flight have been reported for years now. Those who manage to escape the repression at home (in Eritrea) are at risk of falling victim to the brutal methods of human traffickers who hold refugees as hostages for exorbitant ransom. The price of freedom is cash or, in some cases, far more gruesome: The involuntary harvesting of victims’ organs. Many women and also children are regularly forced into sexual slavery by their captors, in some cases for years. Once they escape, they face perilous sea voyages to seek refuge in countries that resent their presence and that are ill equipped to handle the growing influx of so many desperate, deeply traumatized people. Italy recently announced that it is considering a moratorium on accepting refugees, citing the strains on social cohesion and its economy. (Foto: Map of Eritrea)

Eritrea has been cited repeatedly by the U.N. Security Council as supporter of regional as well as international terrorism and it is widely known that its harbors serve as an important thoroughfare of crucial supplies, such as high-tech weapons and food, for a number of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including North Korea. Eritrean citizens living abroad are subject to special taxation, a practice that has been challenged by both the British and Canadian governments. International lawmakers, including from the U.S., continue to pressure Eritrea to respect human rights and to release the detainees, all to no avail. Some individual human rights defenders and organizations have pushed for a non-confrontational approach, a ‘rapprochement’ with Eritrea, by promoting cultural exchange, tourism and the expansion of humanitarian aid. So far, this approach, too, shows no sign of success.

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