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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading human rights group says Eritrea is now committing “crimes against humanity.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom and works on behalf of those persecuted for their religious beliefs, says Eritrea’s abuses occur both within its own borders, and in the Tigray province of Ethiopia, where Eritrean troops are participating in the central government’s military crackdown.

CSW’s Ellis Heasley told Crux, the “scale of human rights violations in Eritrea draws few parallels in the world today.”

He pointed to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE), which in June 2016 found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity – “namely enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder” – have been committed in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991.

Heasley also spoke about Eritrea’s “vendetta” war in the Tigray, accusing the Horn of Africa country of conscripting children to fight and carrying out torture and the systematic rape of women and children.

CSW recently joined with Church in Chains (Ireland), the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the UK, Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, and Release Eritrea to issue a joint letter to Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus, the Ambassador of Eritrea in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“[The letter] raises a host of concerns, including the plight of Christian denominations in Eritrea, the majority of which have been proscribed for 20 years now, as well as the continued arbitrary and indefinite detention of tens of thousands of Eritrean citizens, often in inhumane or life-threatening conditions,” he told Crux.

“We are also concerned by Eritrea’s continuing involvement in the war in the neighboring Tigray region of Ethiopia. Eritrean troops stand accused of committing grave international crimes in the region, and have been implicated in the murders of Eritrean refugees, the destruction of two refugee camps and the forced return of thousands who sought refuge in Ethiopia,” he added.

What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Heasley.

Crux: What are the major concerns in the letter?

Heasley: CSW’s letter to His Excellency Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus raises a host of concerns, including the plight of Christian denominations in Eritrea, the majority of which have been proscribed for 20 years now, as well as the continued arbitrary and indefinite detention of tens of thousands of Eritrean citizens, often in inhumane or life-threatening conditions.

We are also concerned by Eritrea’s continuing involvement in the war in the neighboring Tigray region of Ethiopia. Eritrean troops stand accused of committing grave international crimes in the region, and have been implicated in the murders of Eritrean refugees, the destruction of two refugee camps, and the forced return of thousands who sought refuge in Ethiopia.

In addition, many of those being forced to fight in Tigray are believed to be conscripts and minors, as Eritrea continues to subject many of its citizens to indefinite military service, when by law it is meant to last for 18 months. It also continues its practice of rounding up individuals, known as Giffa, and conscripting them forcibly.

Can you describe the scale of human rights violations in Eritrea?

The scale of human rights violations in Eritrea draws few parallels in the world today. CSW concurs with the assessment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE), which in June 2016, “found reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity, “namely enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder” have been committed in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991.

The COIE report highlighted the crime of religious persecution. There has been no improvement in the situation of freedom of religion or belief in recent years, with reports of continued government interference in the affairs of religious groups, raids on prayer meetings, the arrest and imprisonment of religious leaders and adherents, and, in some cases, even torture or execution. Even the religious communities permitted to operate under Eritrean law experience repression.

Seven church leaders have been detained incommunicado without charge or trial for over 17 years. We recently learned of the death of Tsigeweyni Mekonen Haile on June 5. The mother of six was the wife of Rev. Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, an expert theologian who was one of three leaders of the Orthodox renewal movement based in the Medhane Alem Church, which the government disliked. Years earlier, the wife of Dr. Futsum Gebrenegus, another of the detained Orthodox leaders who at the time was Eritrea’s only psychiatrist, also died, leaving their son effectively without a parent.

In what ways has the war in Tigray worsened the human rights violations in Eritrea?

As mentioned, many of the Eritrean troops currently fighting in Tigray are believed to be minors or forced conscripts, and CSW is particularly concerned by credible reports of young people, including the underage, being seized from homes, streets, and marketplaces and forcibly conscripted in the lead up to and during the war.

The war is also a clear fulfillment of a long-held vendetta by Eritrea’s leader, Isais Afewerki, against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dates back to the border war of 1998. Afewerki effectively groomed the leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia, aided in this endeavor by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s own antipathy towards the Tigrayan leadership and ambitions of centralizing power. The violations perpetrated by troops, who are effectively under his command in Tigray, are yet another indicator of the sadism of Afewerki and a regime, which, as mentioned, already stands accused of crimes against humanity.

Eritrean troops are implicated in the most appalling violations, and by their own admission have been officially sanctioned to commit acts that appear to be aimed at eliminating a group of people. These include massacres of males aged over seven, genocidal rape targeting victims as young as six, deliberate starvation, and attacks on and looting of religious buildings timed to coincide with key festivals in order to maximize casualties.

The country celebrated its 31st independence anniversary on May 24, 20 years “since most of the nation’s Christian denominations were proscribed.” How are those still practicing these proscribed religions treated?

Alongside many other religious communities in Eritrea, Christians continue to face widespread imprisonment and other violations of their fundamental human rights. The number of Christian prisoners is difficult to ascertain; however, in Sept. 2020, CSW’s sources confirmed over 300, including 39 children. In March 2022, security forces arrested 17 women and 12 men during a raid on a prayer meeting in a house in Asmara, who were taken to Mai Serwa prison camp.

Many will be familiar with the case of Abune [Father] Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the Orthodox Church who died on 9 Feb. 2022, following 16 years under house arrest. He had been removed from office in 2006, in violation of canon law, for repeatedly objecting to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs and refusing to excommunicate members of the Orthodox renewal movement. He died amidst allegations he was being injected with an unknown substance that had detrimental effects on his health. The patriarch’s continued and unjust detention throughout the final years of his life is indicative of the Eritrean authorities’ persisting hostility to Christian groups in the country. The government has effectively “captured” the Orthodox Church, controlling its finances, selling its assets, approving and imposing leaders, and imprisoning priests and others who object.

What is your call to the Eritrean government in respect of these human rights violations?

We continue to call on the Eritrean government to release immediately and without condition every prisoner of conscience in the country, and to end the use of torture, arbitrary arrest, and indefinite detention. We urge Eritrea to cooperate fully with the UN Human Rights Council and its special procedures in order to improve the human rights situation and to implement in full the recommendations made by successive special rapporteurs and the Commission of Inquiry.

We also call on Eritrea to immediately withdraw its entire military from Tigray and Oromia and to end military roundups and the indefinite extension of the legally stipulated 18-month term of military service, and to immediately demobilize both underage conscripts and those whose term of service exceeds the 18-month limit.