HRWF (04.12.2020) – On December 4, 2020, 26 male and 2 female Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea were set free after being imprisoned for their faith. They have spent between 5 and 26 years in prison.
In October last, 69 Christians had been released, apparently due to the Covid, but five more had been arrested.
In September, HRWF had published its report “In Prison For Their Faith 2020”.
Reasons for the Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses
According to July 2018 estimates by the US government, the total population of Eritrea is six million. There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation, but it is estimated that 49% of the population are Christian and 49% are Sunni Muslim.
The country is ruled by a totalitarian one-party dictatorship of Maoist inspiration. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after 30 years of continuous armed struggle by the Eritrean Liberation Front. Since then, national presidential or legislative elections have never taken place.
A number of beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been perceived negatively by the current government.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and conscientiously cannot participate in military service. They refuse to kill or receive training on how to kill. Because they will not participate in compulsory military service, Eritrean authorities consider them to be opposed to the regime.
Additionally, Jehovah’s Witnesses develop missionary activities in close social networks and hold religious meetings in private homes, which is illegal. Furthermore, Jehovah’s Witnesses decline to participate in political elections.
By a presidential decree dated 25 October 1994, President Afewerki revoked citizenship for Jehovah’s Witnesses because they did not participate in the 1993 independence referendum and they are conscientious objectors to military service. Prior to enforcing conscription, Eritrean authorities had provided genuine alternatives with civilian service. Numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses took part in these alternative options under different government administrations. The authorities systematically issued ‘Certificates of Completed National Service’ and often praised participants for their work. However, since this presidential decree, security forces have imprisoned, tortured, and harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses in an effort to force them to renounce their faith.
In Eritrea, Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison as conscientious objectors to military service, for holding underground religious meetings or for attempts to share their beliefs with others.
Jehovah’s Witnesses behind bars: some statistics
As of 1 June 2020, HRWF documented 55 cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses in its Prisoners’ Database, 46 men and 9 women.
Of the Jehovah’s Witnesses currently imprisoned, 16 are known to have been arrested for conscientious objection to military service. Police arrested others who were attending Christian meetings or publicly sharing their faith. More commonly though, they arrested individuals for undisclosed reasons. With one recent exception, those imprisoned have never had the opportunity to offer a defence in court. Most do not know how long they will remain in prison.
The majority of the imprisoned male Jehovah’s Witnesses are incarcerated indefinitely, with no hope of release until they die or are near death. Since there are no effective domestic legal procedures or remedies available to them, their imprisonment amounts to a de facto life sentence.
Three men, Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam, have been in prison for conscientious objection to compulsory military service since 17 September 1994. Ten other men have been in prison for over ten years. Some Jehovah’s Witness prisoners have been detained in metal shipping containers, while others were held in stone or metal buildings half buried in the ground.
In 2018, two Jehovah’s Witnesses died after their transfer to the Mai Serwa Prison. Habtemichael Tesfamariam died at the age of 76 on 3 January and Habtemichael Mekonen died at the age of 77 on 6 March. Eritrean authorities imprisoned both men in 2008 without charges.
Articles of the Penal Code
In almost all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses are arrested and imprisoned without any formal criminal charges, trial or sentencing.
Like many others imprisoned in Eritrea, detained Jehovah’s Witnesses have no legal recourse and so cannot challenge their indefinite detention.
On 6 July 2017, the European Parliament’s resolution on Eritrea, notably the cases of Abune Antonios and Dawit Isaak, condemned ‘in the strongest terms Eritrea’s systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations’, and called upon the Eritrean Government to ‘put an end to detention of the opposition, journalists, religious leaders and innocent civilians’. The Parliament demanded ‘that all prisoners of conscience in Eritrea be immediately and unconditionally released’ and that ‘the Eritrean Government provide detailed information on the fate and whereabouts of all those deprived of physical liberty’.
Presented to the UN Human Rights Council on 16 May 2019, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘face severe persecution, including denial of citizenship and travel papers, for their political neutrality and conscientious objection to military service’.
The Special Rapporteur urged the Government of Eritrea ‘to engage in dialogue with this congregation and release those in prison’. She also urged the Government ‘to provide members of this congregation with the opportunity to participate in a form of civil service that is consistent with their religious beliefs’.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the US government:
- re-designate Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for engaging in systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom;
- impose targeted sanctions on Eritrean government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the US under human rights related financial and visa authorities;
- use bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels to urge the government of Eritrea to:
- release unconditionally detainees held on account of their religious activities;
- publish the registration law for religious groups along with clear guidelines for applying for or appealing decisions;
- end religious persecution of unregistered religious communities and grant full citizenship rights to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
 For more religious statistics, see U.S. Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Report on international Religious Freedom: Eritrea 2018, 2018. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/eritrea/.
 European Parliament, Resolution on the cases of Abune Antonios and Dawit Isaak (2017/2755(RSP)) July 6, 2017. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2017-0309_EN.html.
 General Assembly of the United Nations, Situation of human rights in Eritrea. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (Report A/HRC/41/53) May 16, 2019. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/G1914037.pdf.
 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF–
Recommended for countries of particular concern: Eritrea, 2020, 2020.