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Press Watchdog: Eritrean Government Caused Playwright's Death


An international press watchdog Thursday accused the Eritrean government of being responsible for the death of a playwright who had been in detention for several years, a charge the government denies. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Fessehaye Yohannes, nicknamed "Joshua," was a poet, playwright and journalist who was detained in 2001 with almost a dozen other journalists and many members of the political opposition.

According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Joshua died on January 11 in a prison camp in northern Eritrea after having been tortured.

"We have received from at least three different sources that don't know each other this very, very sad information about Joshua that says that, after having been treated several times in different hospitals in Asmara, he was taken back to Eiraeiro where he died of the very extremely harsh and dreadful conditions of detention in this facility," said Reporters Without Borders' Leonard Vincent.

The press watchdog's statement called on the Eritrean government to hand Joshua's body over to his family or prove that he is still alive. The watchdog also wants the government to account for three other journalists who were reportedly killed in detention.

Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel rejects Reporters Without Borders' statement.

"In the first place, I don't know the person you're talking about," he said. "In the second place, people are imprisoned if they commit an offense of whatever type, but there is no torture - the government does not practice torture."

Yemane says Reporters Without Borders has been conducting a "smear campaign" against Eritrea for unknown reasons.

In its press freedom report of 2006, Reporters Without Borders named Eritrea as being among the worst violators of press freedom in the world.

The report says there are more than 100 political prisoners in jail, with at least 13 journalists being locked up without having access to their lawyers or families.

In 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki suspended independent press in his country and launched a security operation to arrest influential members of the private media who appealed for democratic reforms in the young country.

Several years ago, a Voice of America reporter was arrested and jailed in Eritrea, because of a report he filed for VOA. He has since been released.

The government denies that there is a lack of press freedom in the country.

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