Posted Sunday, February 14 – 2010
Mr Embye, an Eritrean journalist
Yonas Embye talks without pause for breath. His ideas are fired scattergun-style, revealing insights from his multiple personalities – journalist, torture victim, humanitarian worker, escapee extraordinaire. But his message is clear. “I must express myself,” he says, shifting restlessly. “Sometimes I cannot sleep because I have to get the word out about my colleagues back home.”
Mr Embye is an Eritrean journalist that says he escaped from years in jail, incarcerated along with thousands of independent media workers, former ministers, political activists and minority faith practitioners, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organisations.
Eritrea’s President Issayas Afewerki does not tolerate dissent: He has ruled a one-party State without elections since Eritrea’s Independence in 1993 and Eritrea is the only African country to have no privately-owned news media.
International non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) says about 26 journalists and two media workers are currently held in Eritrea, which now ranks worst in the world along with China and Iran.
Human Rights Watch said in a 2009 report that “Eritrea has become one of the most closed and repressive states in the world.”
Mr Embye has an indefatigable drive to tell his story. He was working as a journalist for Admas newspaper from 1999, writing stories about the growing suppression of an active political, cultural and professional expression that had hoped to flourish after independence. Mr Embye’s focus was the new constitution, which the government refused to publish. “Without a constitution you can’t ensure your rights, or hold anybody to account,” said Mr Embye.
At the end of the 1990s there was some media freedom, but after a devastating military conflict with Ethiopia, and with global attention on the 9/11 attack on New York, Mr Aferwerki clamped down.
In September 2001 several government officials, journalists and other government critics were arrested without warning and Mr Embye says he was caught up in the detentions. “I was on my way to work with my laptop and I was picked up and taken to a prison. I was there for three months. I couldn’t see my family, or lawyers… I was investigated by national security and they tried to make us admit that we were saboteurs against the motherland.”
He says he was tortured.
“Everyday at 5am they would put me in freezing water. They’d tie wood under my knees and hang me upside down; beat my feet and my hands. There was so much shock.” “But I am strong. I never signed,” he said, puffing his chest. “I knew my family would be in danger if I confessed. I also did it for all of the journalism profession.”
Amnesty’s research on Eritrean prisons supports Mr Embye’s testimony, saying prisoners are ‘regularly’ tortured. It says at least one journalist has died in jail. Last month RWB wrote to Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, insisting “the conditions in which Eritrean detainees are held are among the most disturbing in the world.”
In 2005, Mr Embye says he was relocated to another prison in the desert of Western Eritrea where he decided to escape.
“I told the other prisoners the world did not care because there was no evidence about us. We were the witness and had to tell the outside.” The prisoners systematically used one section of the perimeter wall as a latrine to weaken the concrete and after several months used a spoon and a fork to dig through.
He says he and two companions crossed the desert in three days, dodging sand snakes and scorpions. By luck, they reached the border with Sudan, where Yonas was granted asylum. He spent the next four years volunteering for humanitarian agencies and researching human rights abuses in war-ravaged Darfur.
“I felt human and I wanted to help fellow humans,” he enthuses. But his activities made him vulnerable to persecution from the Sudanese authorities. They were feeling the heat from the International Criminal Court which was mounting a case against Sudan’s president Omar el Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, from evidence they’d received from people such as Mr Embye.
So he decided to flee again and travelled to Uganda in November 2009, where he has been seeking permanent asylum. He has just been granted a second three months extension of stay while the government decides upon his fate and has been relying on the good-will of fellow Eritreans and the Catholic Church for food and shelter.