US-Eritrean relations come under fire over human rights

One rights group is asking the government to free some 300 political prisoners Friday.

When Eritrea marks the 10th anniversary of its independence Saturday, Alli Alamin and Kiflom Ghebremichael won't be joining in the celebrations. The two employees of the US Embassy here in the Eritrean capital are imprisoned without charge; US diplomats don't know where they're being held.

The detention of the two men for the past year and a half is part of what human rights groups describe as a wider crackdown on political freedoms that is tarnishing the reputation of a country previously seen as one of Africa's bright stars. More than 300 people - ruling party dissidents, independent journalists, conscientious objectors, civil servants, and ordinary citizens who made one antigovernment comment too many - are languishing in Eritrea's jails, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The private press is shut down, evangelical church groups are banned, free national elections have yet to be held, and the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only legal political party.

The repression - particularly the detention of the two embassy workers - is forcing the Bush administration to weigh US security interests against its desire to be seen as upholding democratic principles. The Pentagon wants to work more closely with Eritrea in the war against terrorism. The country sits at a vital location along the Red Sea in the middle of a region considered a hotbed of terrorist activity. It boasts top-notch military facilities built when it was part of Ethiopia and has shown pro-US leanings, including voicing support for the war in Iraq.

The head of US Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the country separately last year to discuss cooperation, and some US officials say the Pentagon would prefer to put its antiterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa in Eritrea instead of the current location in neighboring Djibouti.

Eritrea wants the same, so much so that it spent $600,000 over the past year on a lobbying firm in an attempt to persuade Washington to use its military facilities.

But critics say the US should not reward Eritrea with closer military cooperation - and the revenue that comes with it - but should put pressure on the government to stop abusing human rights.

"What we would argue is political repression fuels terrorism," says Tom Malinowski, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "There's a big danger that a closer ,less critical relationship with Eritrea might reinforce the policies in that country that potentially fuel violence and terrorism."

Here in Eritrea, it's hard to find anyone willing to speak on the record against the government. "There is no democracy here," says a security guard at Asmara airport, after looking around to make sure no one else can hear.

Woldai Futur, a top adviser to President Issaias Afewerki, says his government has the right to detain people without charge over matters of national security and points out that the US has done the same.

"Human rights are relative to me," says Mr. Futur, who holds a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois. "All countries have human rights issues. Is Eritrea the worst in these terms? I don't think so."

Asked when the two US Embassy employees will be brought before a court, he says he cannot answer. "First and foremost these are Eritreans," he says. "They will be treated the way Eritreans are being treated for whatever they have done. This issue of two people cannot really be a major issue that will scuttle the relationship between these two countries."

Reports vary as to why the two staffers are being detained. Some say it is for helping Eritrean dissidents obtain political asylum in the US; others say they were simply translating reports critical of the government from the private press.

US officials here say that elsewhere in the world the US is having to balance the shortcomings of its partners in the war on terror - countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen - against its national security interests. US officials admit privately that if the embassy workers are freed or even given due process, the Bush administration could manage to disregard the other rights abuses and enhance its military cooperation with Eritrea.

But rights groups say it would be wrong to turn a blind eye to the extent of the repression. The crackdown began during a two-day period in September 2001, with world attention focused on the attacks on New York and Washington. Security forces launched predawn raids to arrest 11 senior PFDJ members on allegations of sedition. All had signed an open letter mildly criticizing President Afewerki's leadership. The government also shut down all eight private newspapers in the country and arrested 10 journalists, citing "gross violation" of press laws. Amnesty International is calling on Eritrea to mark independence day by freeing its political prisoners.

When the Italian ambassador sent an official statement of concern over the growing repression, he was expelled. Soon after the US lodged its own protest, the embassy staffers were arrested.

"The Eritrean government is not very eager about becoming a democracy," says a Western diplomat in Asmara. "They talk the talk of democracy, but we don't see any indication it's happening."

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