Eritrea: Dawit Isaac hospitalised, denied visits

English PEN is deeply concerned at reports that the Eritrean-Swedish journalist and author Dawit Isaac, who has been detained incommunicado without charge for over seven years, was transferred to a military hospital on 11 January 2009. Isaac’s whereabouts remain unknown.


Dawit Isaac (born 1964), owner of the now defunct weekly newspaper Setit, playwright and writer, was reportedly transferred from prison to a military hospital operated by the Eritrean Air Force on 11 January 2009, according to an unofficial source. Isaac, who has Swedish citizenship, was said to be receiving medical treatment for an unspecified condition but had no access to visits. It was not known where he was being held.


The report, dated 13 January, was published in the Tigrinya language on the Eritrean diaspora website Eritrea Watch for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Switzerland. It was not possible to verify the report but it was thought to be credible.


Eritrea Watch also indicated that on 13 December 2008 Isaac had been moved to a maximum-security prison in Embatkala, 35km northeast of Asmara, along with 112 other political prisoners, reportedly on the orders of President Issayas Afewerki. The prison is said to have one of the harshest regimes in the country.


In November 2005, Isaac was briefly released for a medical check-up and was allowed to call his family and friends in Sweden. This was due to pressure by groups in Sweden but did not lead to Isaac’s release: he was returned to prison two days later with no explanation.


English PEN is calling on the Eritrean authorities to reveal details of his whereabouts and assurances that he is receiving all necessary medical treatment. It also calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Isaac and 15 other Eritreans imprisoned for their writings since 2001.




Isaac was arrested on 23 September 2001 during the crackdown on the private press that saw all eight independent newspapers closed down. He is one of nine print journalists who were arrested at the time and held incommunicado, apparently indefinitely, and without ever being charged or tried. The only accusations made against them have been uncorroborated allegations by the authorities that the journalists were “traitors”.


Four of the journalists reportedly died in custody between 2005 and early 2007: Said Abdelkader (Admas), Medhanie Haile (Keste Debena), Yusuf Mohamed Ali (Tsigenay), Fesshaye Yohannes “Joshua” (co-owner of Setit, playwright and poet). Their deaths were attributed to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention. Some sources indicate that that Yohannes had been tortured prior to his death. Emanuel Asrat (Zemen), Temesken Ghebreyesus (Keste Debena), Mattewos Habteab (Meqaleh) and Dawit Habtemichael (Meqaleh) remain imprisoned along with Isaac.


In May 2007, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights of the African Union ruled that the detention of the journalists was arbitrary and unlawful and called on the Eritrean government to release and compensate the detainees. However all five remain detained incommunicado without charge or trial. There are ongoing concerns about severe ill treatment, possible torture, poor health and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the four reported deaths above.


At least 11 former government cabinet members have also been held incommunicado without charge or trial since September 2001 on similar charges. Their arrest apparently stemmed from their publication publishing an open letter critical of the government addressed to members of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party in May 2001.


Useful links:

• Committee to Protest Journalists report:
• Free Dawit campaign report:
• International Federation of Journalists report:
• Eritrea Watch for Human Rights and Democracy:


Please send appeals:


• Protesting the treatment by the Eritrean authorities of Dawit Isaac, his fellow imprisoned journalists and the 11 former cabinet members, all detained since 2001 for their writing
• Calling on the Eritrean authorities to release details of Isaac’s health status, medical treatment and whereabouts, as well as that of the other detainees 
• Calling for the immediate and conditional release of Isaac and the other detained journalists, in line with the 2007 African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruling, as well as that of the 11 former cabinet members detained for their writing


Send your appeals to:


His Excellency Issayas Afewerki
Office of the President
P O Box 257, Asmara, Eritrea
Fax: 2911 125123
Salutation: Your Excellency

Diplomatic representative in the region:

You may also consider requesting the ambassador or other diplomatic representative of your own country based in Eritrea to raise our concerns about Isaac and the other detainees.


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