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Title: Eritrea Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 ERITREA Eritrea became an independent state in May 1993, following a U.N.- supervised referendum in which citizens voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the 30-year war for independence, has been in de facto control of the country since it defeated Ethiopian army forces in 1991, and its leader, Isaias Afwerki, serves as the President. The EPLF, renamed the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has outlined an ambitious program for transition to a democratically elected government by 1997. In April 1994, the National Assembly, partly appointed by the PFDJ leadership and partly elected, created a 50-member National Constitution Commission to draft a constitution by mid-1996. Committee members and other high-ranking government officials have stated that the constitution will provide for democratic freedoms, including the rights of free assembly, free speech, and free association. The Government has made a sustained effort to reduce the armed forces, over 95,000 strong by the end of the war for independence, to its current 45,000 strength. The police are generally responsible for maintaining internal security, although the Government may call on the army and demobilized soldiers in times of internal disorder. The army is responsible for external and border security. Since 1993 the army has been forced to deal with the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a small, Sudan-based insurgent group that has mounted sporadic terrorist attacks in western Eritrea. The economy and infrastructure, devastated by the war, are making a slow recovery. The Government has passed a liberal investment code, but the industrial sector has suffered from outmoded, centralized economic practices and deteriorating capital equipment. More than 80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, mostly subsistence farming. The Government continued to have strong public support and generally respected the human rights of its citizens. However, problem areas remain. In particular, the Government harassed and in some cases arrested Jehovah's Witnesses for their refusal to vote in the referendum on independence or participate in national service on religious grounds. Prison conditions are generally Spartan, and the Government continued to resist international monitoring of prisons. The Government did not respond to questions about its human rights practices and did not register or recognize domestic human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). In May the Government pardoned 91 detainees for collaboration with the Mengistu regime. Fifty-two persons associated with radical Islamic political elements or suspected terrorist organizations remained in detention without charge. The number of remaining detainees is unknown. The Government continued its strong support of the rights of women and took steps to broaden women's participation in politics. However, its implementation of laws to improve women's status was uneven. Women generally have a lower status than men, and female genital mutilation remained widespread. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for Integrity of the Person Including Freedom from: a. Political and Extrajudicial Killing There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. Several members of the armed opposition group, the Eritrean Liberation Front- Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC) were allegedly abducted from their Sudanese camps in 1992 by Eritrean Government forces. The Government continued to deny that they were in Eritrea, and--despite repeated high- level inquiries--at year's end, the whereabouts of the missing rebels remained unknown. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Ethiopian Penal Code, as modified by the transitional Penal Code of Eritrea, prohibits torture. The Government does not permit independent monitoring of conditions in detention facilities. Prison conditions are Spartan, but generally not inhuman. The Government does not permit prisoners to correspond with family and friends and restricts visitation privileges. There were isolated unconfirmed reports that prisoners were beaten or may have died due to lack of proper medical care. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The current Penal Code stipulates that detainees may be held for a maximum of 30 days without being charged with a crime. In practice, authorities sometimes hold persons suspected of crimes for much longer periods. On the second anniversary of independence in May, the Government pardoned and released 91 detainees who had been held for up to 4 years for collaboration with the Mengistu regime. At year's end, an unknown number of additional suspected collaborators remained in detention without charge, despite a statement by President Isaias in September that their cases would be dealt with soon. Fifty-two persons associated with radical Islamic elements or suspected terrorist organizations also remained in detention without charge. There also were unconfirmed reports that the Government detained arbitrarily several ELF members (see Section 1.b.). The Government does not use exile as a means of political control. e. Denial of a Fair Public Trial The judiciary is independent, and there were no known incidents of executive interference in the judicial process over the past year. The underdeveloped judicial system, however, suffers from a lack of trained personnel, resources, and infrastructure which in practice limits the State's ability to grant accused persons a speedy trial. At independence Eritrea chose to retain the Ethiopian legal system based on the Napoleonic Code, until the new constitution is promulgated. Under this Code, simple crimes are brought to the lower court and heard by a single judge. Serious crimes are tried publicly by a panel of three judges, and defendants have access to legal counsel, usually at their own expense. Although there is no formal public defender's office, the Government successfully requests that attorneys work pro bono to represent defendants accused of serious crimes who are unable to afford legal counsel. Defendants may appeal verdicts to the Appellate Court, which is composed of a President of the Court and five judges. Since the population is largely rural, most citizens only contact with the legal system is through traditional "courts." Village judges, appointed by a panel of government magistrates, provide justice in civil matters. Criminal cases are transferred to magistrates versed in criminal law. Many local issues, for example property disputes and most petty crimes are adjudicated by local elders according to custom or, in the case of Muslims, the Koran. These traditional courts cannot give sentences involving physical punishment. Crimes committed by members of the military are handled by military courts. There were no reports of political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence Under the law, warrants are required before the Government can monitor mail, telephones, or other means of private communication. Warrants also are required in routine searches and seizures, except in cases where authorities believe individuals may attempt to escape or destroy evidence. There is no indication that the Government monitored private mail or telephone lines. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Government has repeatedly stated that the new constitution will provide for freedom of speech and of the press, and citizens were generally free to express opinions in various forums. In the past year, however, the Government restricted the rights of the religious media to comment on politics or government policies. A newspaper published by the Catholic Church was ordered to shut down after it criticized the Government's implementation of civil service cuts. The Government controls the media, which include three newspapers, one radio station, and one television station. Nonreligious print media are free to criticize the Government, and a recent survey showed that about 14 percent of newspaper articles contained some criticism of a government action or policy. Nonetheless, criticism tends to be limited and fairly mild. Although there is no formal censorship body, it is likely that the media practice at least some self-censorship. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association A permit from the Ministry of Internal Affairs is required for a public meeting or demonstration. In general permits are granted freely for nonpolitical meetings or gatherings, and--although no political demonstrations have occurred--there are no reports that permits for political demonstrations were denied. The Government has stated that the right to form political parties will be provided for in the new constitution. However, the PFDJ has stated its opposition to the formation of religiously or ethnically-based parties. c. Freedom of Religion Although the Government has stated that freedom of religion will be a basic tenet of the new constitution, it has banned religious organizations from any involvement in politics as defined by the Government. A mid-July proclamation listed specific guidelines on the role of religion and religiously affiliated NGO's in development and government, stating that development, politics, and public administration are the sole responsibility of the Government and people of Eritrea. As a result religious organizations may fund, but not initiate or implement, development projects. The proclamation also set out rules governing the relations between Eritrean religious organizations and foreign sponsors. Government persecution of the small Jehovah's Witnesses community continued in 1995. The Witnesses' refusal on religious grounds to vote in the independence referendum or participate in the National Youth Service program--which involves some military training--spurred widespread criticism that the group was collectively shirking its civic duty. The Government took arbitrary punitive measures against Jehovah's Witnesses, including barring Witnesses from government employment, evicting them from government housing, revoking their business licenses, and refusing to issue them passports. Although the law provides for penalties only for those who refuse to report for national service, these harsh measures were applied to the entire Jehovah's Witnesses community. The Government also refused to issue visas to two U.S. citizens representing the worldwide Jehovah's Witness organization who sought to interview local Witnesses. In 1994 and 1995 many Muslim women refused to participate in the National Youth Service on religious grounds, but the Government did not take similar punitive measures against the Islamic community. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation In general, citizens may live where they choose and travel freely internally. Some areas are restricted for security reasons. In particular, clashes between government forces and EIJ members have led the Government to restrict travel along much of the border with Sudan. Some areas remain heavily mined, a legacy of the war for independence, leading to additional travel restrictions. Citizens are largely free to travel outside the country, although Jehovah's Witnesses, former Ethiopian ruling party members, and intending emigrants have been denied passports and can only leave the country by traveling overland to Ethiopia. In general, citizens are guaranteed the right to return. Instances in which citizens living abroad have run afoul of the law, contracted a serious contagious disease, or been declared ineligible for political asylum by other governments are considered on a case by case basis. A pilot refugee return program resulted in the successful repatriation of 25,000 refugees from Sudan by mid-1995. A further 100,000 of the estimated 400,000 refugees in Sudan are scheduled to begin repatriation later this year under U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees auspices. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens To Change Their Government Citizens do not currently enjoy this right, and credible reports suggest that authority within the Government is very narrowly held. There is no constitution and no provision for holding elections. The National Assembly in 1994 created a 50-member National Constitution Commission to draft a democratic constitution. The Commission is scheduled to complete a draft of the constitution in early 1996, promulgate the document soon afterwards, and hold elections by the end of 1997. The transitional Government is dominated by the PFDJ. In an effort to broaden the participation of women in politics, the PFDJ has named 3 women to the party's Executive Council and 12 women to the Central Committee. Women occupy seats on the Constitution Commission and in the National Assembly and hold senior government positions, including the ministerial portfolios of justice and tourism. As part of a draft plan to establish regional legislatures, 30% of legislative seats would be reserved for women who would also be able to compete for remaining seats. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights The Government did not respond to questions about its human rights practices by international organizations and continued to be unreceptive to the formation of domestic human rights groups. The Government did not respond to a list of human rights cases presented to it in 1994 by concerned human rights groups and did not register or recognize domestic human rights NGO's. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are jointly responsible for handling human rights inquiries but were slow to respond to allegations of human rights abuses. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Transitional Civil Code prohibits discrimination against women, children, and people with disabilities. Women The Government has taken a firm stand against domestic violence; health, police, and judicial authorities say that no serious domestic violence problem exists. The Government has taken a consistently strong stand in favor of improving the status of women, many of whom played a significant role as fighters in the struggle for independence. In 1991 the provisional EPLF government codified a broad range of rights for women, providing for equal educational opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and legal sanctions against domestic violence. In 1994 the Third Party Congress advocated more rights for women, including parity in the right to the use of land and other property. Although Eritrea is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the National Assembly has not yet passed legislation implementing the Convention. Much of society remains traditional and patriarchal, and most women have an inferior status to men in their homes and communities. The law provides a framework for improving the status of women, but these laws were unevenly implemented, both because of a lack of capacity in the legal system and ingrained cultural attitudes. In practice, males retain privileged access to education, employment, and control of economic resources, with disparities being greater in rural areas than in cities. Children The Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for government policies concerning the rights and welfare of children. The Ministry has little funding, and the Government does not generally regard child welfare as a serious problem. Female genital mutilation, which is widely considered by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is practiced extensively on girls at an early age. The Government, through the Ministry of Health and the National Union of Eritrean Women, is actively discouraging this practice. People with Disabilities The long war for independence left thousands of men and women physically disabled from injuries they received as guerrillas and as civilian victims. The Government spends a large share of its meager resources to support and train these war disabled, who are regarded as heroes, and does not discriminate against them in training, education, or employment. There were, however, no laws mandating access for the disabled to public thoroughfares or public and private buildings. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association There are no government restrictions regarding the formation of unions, including in the military, the police, and other essential services. Labor association is encouraged by the Government. The Government promulgated a proclamation providing workers the legal right to form unions and to strike to protect their interests. The National Confederation of Eritrean Workers, which was part of the EPLF during the war, has reorganized since independence and become independent of both the Government and the PFDJ. It represents over 20,000 workers from 129 unions. The largest union is the Textile, Leather, and Shoe Federation. There were no reported strikes in 1995. b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively Eritrea is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and worked closely with that Organization in 1993 to prepare the draft labor code, which prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers and establishes a mechanism for resolving complaints of discrimination. In concert with U.S. and Israeli labor specialists, labor leaders are in the process of developing a policy on cooperative associations. The Government has indicated its intention to ratify several key ILO conventions on labor--freedom of association, the right to bargain, a labor administration system, and prohibitions against child labor--but has not yet done so. The Labor Ministry has indicated that ratification of the conventions may not occur until after the new constitution is promulgated. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor There is no law or signed convention prohibiting compulsory labor. There were no known instances of forced labor. All youth are required, however, to participate in the national service program, which includes military training as well as civic action programs. High school students are also required to participate in a summer work program, for which they are paid. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The legal minimum age for employment is 18 years, although apprentices may be hired at age 16. While the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is responsible for enforcement of laws pertaining to employment of children, there is no inspection system in place to monitor compliance. Despite the high rate of adult unemployment many children under age 18 work in commercial enterprises. According to labor officials, 50 percent of children are not able to attend school due to a shortage of schools and teachers. Rural children who do not attend classes often work on their family farms, while urban children often sell wares, such as cigarettes, newspapers, or chewing gum, on the street. e. Acceptable Conditions for Work There are two systems regulating employment conditions: the civil service system, and the labor law system. The free market determines wage rates, and there is no legally mandated minimum wage in the private sector. In the civil service sector wages vary from $25 to $200 per month (150 birr to 1,200 birr), with factory workers (in government- owned enterprises) earning the highest wages. Former guerrillas are entitled to a monthly wage of at least $75 (450 birr). The standard workweek in Eritrea is 48 hours, but many people work fewer hours. There is no legal provision for a day of rest, but most workers are allowed 1 to 1 1/2 days off per week. The Government has instituted occupational health and safety standards, but inspection and enforcement vary widely among factories. The draft labor law includes a number of provisions concerning women, including one that states that women during pregnancy shall not be assigned to jobs that could endanger their lives or the lives of their unborn children. Workers are permitted to remove themselves from dangerous work sites without retaliation. (###)
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