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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.   
 
(###)

[end of document]

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