IN Sembel Prison here in the capital of Eritrea, their cells are large rooms lined with dozens of sleeping mats a few inches apart on the floor. Their exercise areas are small dirt courtyards behind tall barbed wire fences.
Some prisoners say they have not seen their families for two years or had a visit from any outsider except an American diplomat and this reporter. "I don't know why I'm here," one detainee says during a tour granted only reluctantly by prison officials.
As Eritrea prepares for formal independence May 24, after 30 years of war against Ethiopia, the human rights record of the new government is likely to come under increased scrutiny.
Already there are signs that dissent - in the form of a free press or academic criticism, for example - may not be welcome by the new government. Nor has Eritrea's head of state, Isaias Afewerki, offered a detailed explanation of why Eritrea will be kept under military rule for possibly five years or more.
His vagueness recalls Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has talked about elections ever since seizing power in 1986 but has yet to face the ballot box.
During their rule here, Ethiopians killed and tortured many Eritreans suspected of working against their government, residents say. People lived "fully in fear - day and night," says Sister Veronica, of the Comboni Missionary Sisters here.
But soon after their triumphant entry into Asmara in May 1991, rebels of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) rounded up thousands of civilians suspected of collaborating with the Ethiopian government.
An official with Eritrea's Department of Internal Affairs says some 12,000 cases of suspected collaborators have been reviewed and most have been released.
The detainees still locked up are suspected "hardened criminals - real killers," the official said. Documents found in abandoned government offices here and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, provide evidence of their guilt, the official adds.
A WESTERN diplomat says there are probably about 275 people still being detained by the EPLF for alleged human rights abuses.
Eritrean officials asked why, after two years, these detainees have not been brought to trial, say the prisoners will not be tried until a constitution is drafted and adopted by a yet-unformed Eritrean national assembly. EPLF Secretary-General Afewerki says it may be two years before a national assembly is elected.
"Tell him, tell him," several detainees urged others who were gathering in their courtyard, the gate of which was open to the rest of the small prison's grounds.
"I'm not a party member," said one of the detainees, referring to the Ethiopian Worker's Party of the previous Ethiopian government. "I'm here for unknown reasons."
Another detainee said this is the prison's "political" block. A third claimed: "I'm a trader. I had my own car. My car was handed over to the government [of Eritrea]."
The Western diplomat says detainees are allowed to see their families once a week, but some detainees refuted that claim.
Another group of as many as several hundred suspected collaborators, mostly people working in Eritrea's new government, were temporarily suspended from their jobs recently and have been assigned to community service jobs without pay.
They are being "punished" for working too closely with the Ethiopians, says another senior Eritrean official. But the punishment is not very severe, he says.
Some are working in offices; some are doing conservation work in forests, which, he claims, they enjoy.
They needed this work because they have "ossified [political] attitudes," Afewerki says. In other words, they disagree with the EPLF's government policies.
There are other, less obvious signs that dissent may not be welcome.
Two years after the EPLF took power, there still are no private newspapers or magazines, except for a couple of church publications. By contrast, there are dozens in Ethiopia, also a poor country, where another rebel group took charge two years ago.