International PEN is deeply concerned by reports that the Eritrean-Swedish journalist and author Dawit Isaac, who has been detained incommunicado without charge for over seven years, was transferred to a military hospital on January 11, 2009. Isaac’s whereabouts remain unknown. PEN urges the Eritrean authorities to reveal details of his whereabouts and assurances that he is receiving all necessary medical treatment. Further, PEN calls onthe governemnt for the immediate and unconditional release of Isaac and 15 other Eritreans imprisoned for their writings since 2001.

Background Information

Dawit Isaac (born 1964), playwright, writer, and owner of the now-defunct weekly newspaper Setit, was reportedly transferred from prison to a military hospital operated by the Eritrean Air Force on January 11, 2009, according to an unofficial source. Isaac, who has Swedish citizenship, was said to be receiving medical treatment for an unspecified condition, but has not been permitted any visitors. His current location is unknown.

The report, dated January 13, was published in the Tigrinya language on the Eritrean diaspora web site Eritrea Watch for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Switzerland. It was not possible to verify the report but it is thought to be credible.

Eritrea Watch also indicated that on December 13, 2008, Isaac had been moved to a maximum-security prison in Embatkala along with 112 other political prisoners, reportedly on the orders of President Issayas Afewerki. The prison, located 35 kilometers northeast of Asmara, is said to have one of the harshest regimes in the country.

In November 2005, Isaac was briefly released for a medical check-up and was allowed to call his family and friends in Sweden due to pressure by several groups there. He was returned to prison two days later with no explanation.

Isaac was arrested on September 23, 2001, during a crackdown on the private press in which all eight independent newspapers closed down. He is one of nine print journalists who were arrested at the time and held incommunicado, apparently indefinitely, without charge. The only accusations ever made against them have been uncorroborated allegations by the authorities that the journalists were “traitors.”

Four of the journalists reportedly died in custody between 2005 and early 2007: Said Abdelkader (Admas), Medhanie Haile (Keste Debena), Yusuf Mohamed Ali (Tsigenay), Fesshaye Yohannes “Joshua” (co-owner of Setit, playwright and poet). Their deaths were attributed to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention. Some sources indicate that that Yohannes had been tortured prior to his death. Emanuel Asrat (Zemen), Temesken Ghebreyesus (Keste Debena), Mattewos Habteab (Meqaleh), Dawit Habtemichael (Meqaleh) remain imprisoned along with Isaac.

In May 2007, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruled that the detention of the journalists was arbitrary and unlawful and called on the Eritrean government to release and compensate the detainees. However, all five remain detained incommunicado without charge or trial. There are ongoing concerns regarding severe ill treatment, possible torture, poor health, and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the four reported deaths above.

At least 11 former government cabinet members have also been held incommunicado without charge or trial since September 2001 on similar charges. Their arrests apparently stemmed from the publication of an open letter addressed to members of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party in May 2001 that was critical of the government.

Write A Letter

  • Protesting the treatment by the Eritrean authorities of Dawit Isaac, his fellow imprisoned journalists and the 11 former cabinet members, all detained since 2001 for their writing;  
  • Calling on the Eritrean authorities to release details of Isaac’s health status, medical treatment and whereabouts, as well as that of the other detainees;
  • Calling for the immediate and conditional release of Isaac and the other detained journalists, in line with the 2007 African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruling, as well as that of the 11 former cabinet members detained for their writing.

Send Your Letter To

His Excellency Issayas Afewerki
Office of the President
P O Box 257, Asmara, Eritrea
Fax: + 2911 125123

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Eritrea in your country if possible.

Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN if sending appeals after April 23, 2009: ftw [at]