PEN International protests the decade-long imprisonment of Eritrean-Swedish journalist and author Dawit Isaac, who has been detained incommunicado without charge since September 23, 2001. Isaac is said to be held in appalling conditions and to be in poor physical and mental health; there are serious concerns for his well-being. PEN invites its members and anyone interested in joining us to take part in a week of action (September 19-23, 2011) calling on the Eritrean authorities to provide details of Isaac’s whereabouts and assurances that he is receiving all necessary medical treatment as a matter of urgency. PEN also calls for Isaac’s immediate and unconditional release as well as that of 15 other Eritreans imprisoned for their writings since September 2001.

Background Information

Dawit Isaac (born 1964), owner of the now defunct weekly newspaper Setit, playwright and writer, was arrested on September 23, 2001, during the crackdown on Eritrea’s private press that saw 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 ever being charged or tried. The only accusations made against them have been uncorroborated allegations by the authorities that the journalists were “traitors.”
Information about the detained journalists is scant. However, at least four of them have reportedly died in custody since 2005 due to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention. There have also been unconfirmed reports of the deaths of nine out of 11 former government cabinet ministers also arrested in September 2001, for publishing a letter criticizing the Eritrean government and calling for democratic reform.
Isaac and the other surviving journalists are presumed to remain in detention in secret locations, despite a 2007 ruling by the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights that their detention was arbitrary and unlawful and that the Eritrean government should release and compensate them. There are ongoing concerns about severe ill-treatment, possible torture, poor health, and lack of access to medical care.
The most recent reports indicate that Isaac is being held at the Eiraeiro maximum security prison camp, 10 miles north of the capital Asmara, along with a number of the other detained journalists. They are reportedly not allowed any contact with each other or the outside world, are routinely shackled and receive almost no medical care. Some are said to be held in metal containers or underground cells in temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Isaac suffers from a diabetic condition that requires medical supervision and he is said to be in poor psychological health. He has been hospitalized several times since his imprisonment, including in 2002 for treatment for injuries sustained through torture. In November 2005, Isaac, who holds dual Swedish-Eritrean citizenship, was briefly released for a medical check-up and to call his family and friends following pressure by groups in Sweden.
In July 2011, Isaac’s younger brother, Esayas Isaac, who lives in Sweden, filed a writ of habeas corpus with Eritrea’s Supreme Court calling for information on the journalist’s location and a review of his imprisonment. The habeas corpus writ was reportedly not supported by the Swedish government; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has said the country's goal was to have Isaac released on humanitarian grounds rather than stand trial. In 2010, Esayas Isaac wrote an open letter to the Swedish government and the European Union expressing concern that they were not doing enough to pressure the Eritrean government to release Isaac.

Dawit Isaac is an Honorary Member of Finnish PEN and Swedish PEN. He was awarded the 2009 Tucholsky Award by Swedish PEN and the 2011 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. A collection of Isaac’s writings, entitled Hope - the Tale of Moses and Manna’s Love, was launched at Sweden’s Gothenburg book fair in September 2010.

More information:

Free Dawit campaign (co-founded by Esayas Isaac)
Information on other journalists detained in Eritrea

Write A Letter

  • Protesting the 10-year imprisonment of Dawit Isaac, at least four journalists and 11 former cabinet members detained incommunicado since September 2001 for their writings;
  • 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 surviving journalists, in line with the 2007 African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruling, as well as the release of the former ministers detained for their writings.

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. Contact PEN if sending appeals after November 22, 2011: ftw [at]


  • Organize a petition to present to your nearest Eritrean embassy or consulate and/ or hold a protest outside the premises
  • Request the ambassador or other diplomatic representative of your own country based in Eritrea to raise concerns about Isaac and the other detainees