Dawit has been held in prison for over two decades without being charged or brought to trial by the Eritrean government. He is a playwright, writer, and co-owner of Setit, an independent newspaper published from 1997 until its forcible closure in 2001. Recognized as one of the longest-detained journalists, Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado without trial since 2001.
Dawit Isaak was arrested on September 23, 2001, during a crackdown on independent press throughout Eritrea. He was held incommunicado by the government, and in 2012 he was hospitalized for torture suffered during imprisonment. Dawit has dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship and has garnered attention in Sweden concerning his plight. Dawit has not been tried or charged with a single crime, though in August 2010, a senior Eritrean government adviser, Yemane Gebreab, stated that Dawit was in jail for “very serious crimes regarding Eritrea’s national security and survival as an independent state.”
There were multiple rumors that he had been killed while in custody, with the most recent rumor circulating in October 2011. In April 2012, when a government official was asked about the rumors in an interview in Sweden, he avoided the questions. In 2016, the Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh announced that Dawit was still alive. Eritrea has continued to be secretive about the conditions of Dawit’s detainment and has not disclosed any details. Speaking on a public radio program on July 6, 2020, Bethlehem Isaak, eldest daughter of Isaak, said that her father was still alive. She, however, explained that she was “not allowed to say more,” due to the “silent diplomacy” surrounding her father’s case.
Three journalists, Dawit Habtemichael, Mattewos Habteab, and Wedi Itay, who were taken into custody concurrently with Dawit Isaak during the crackdown in 2001, have since died in custody at Eiraeiro prison camp. Reports indicate that Dawit Isaak is imprisoned in horrible conditions, which include torture that is widespread in Eritrean jails, and suffers from poor health and denied medical care. Dawit is an honorary member of Finnish PEN and Swedish PEN and was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017. The Eritrean government has closed all independent press and media since 2001, and Eritrea has remained at the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for the past seven years.