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Fate of American Citizen Unknown After Four Years in Eritrean Prison

Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before the time of her arrest on December 8, 2012 when she was 15. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

Ciham Ali Abdu pictured just before the time of her arrest on December 8, 2012 when she was 15. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

Ciham Ali Abdu of Eritrea was 15 years old when she was arrested as she tried to cross the border into Sudan. Born in Los Angeles, California, she is the only American citizen imprisoned in Eritrea.

Her family, friends and the representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Asmara have had no news about her whereabouts or her health for the nearly four years she has been in prison.

Ciham is also a unique case. She is the daughter of Ali Abdu, the former minister of information of Eritrea who was one of the closest advisors to the country’s president, Isaias Afwerki. When he fled the country in December of 2012, it sent shockwaves across the nation since he was believed to be unfalteringly loyal to the regime.

Ali’s then 87-year-old father, Abdu Ahmed Younis, his brother Hassen Abdu Ahmed and Ciham were all arrested shortly after his departure and many believe they were punished as retribution for Ali’s decision to flee.

Last week, Ciham’s fate was one of the topics raised at a subcommittee hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives convened by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee titled “Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat.”

Linda Thomas–Greenfield, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the United States raises the issue of Ciham with Eritrean officials during joint meetings, but have received no information.

Eric Whitaker, the former Charge d’Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, said Eritrean officials do not acknowledge that Ciham is a U.S. citizen. “We’ve asked for consular access repeatedly and not been granted it. We are concerned regarding the case,” he said. “The answers we get are typically vague or note that such individual is an Eritrean citizen.”

Ciham left the United States when she was one or two years old, her uncle said. VOA contacted Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel and he declined to comment. In Twitter comments about the hearings he dismissed the U.S. House proceedings as “perfunctory” and a “rehash” of old information.

Ciham’s uncle, Saleh Younis, said the family is desperate for news about her and their other imprisoned family members. He said this was the first time he had heard details about the U.S. embassy’s efforts to get information about Ciham and he is disappointed that they haven’t put more pressure on the Eritrean government.

He also noted that most people caught at the border trying to flee Eritrea are detained for several months or a maximum of two years, making it clear that Ciham is being held indefinitely as a punishment for her father’s actions. “It’s a country without rules, without a system,” Saleh said. “It’s a country where the president and his small clique do whatever they want to do. When we’re talking about human rights violations it’s not in the abstract that we’re talking about, it is these kinds of agonies people go through.”

Saleh is the editor of, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies.

Ali Abdu is currently in Australia where he is seeking asylum. In an affidavit submitted to the government in support of his case which has been widely posted online Ali said he is suffering from insomnia and heart pains and has suicidal thoughts. He said he fears for his family in Eritrea and fears that a member of the Eritrean diaspora could seek to harm him in Australia.

“The more I talk about my secrets the more I am worried and shivering about my safety because I know what crazy things the president can do to me. Even in Melbourne I am very recognizable and I fear that government supporters are following me,” he said.

Chairman of the House Subcommittee, Chris Smith, Republican Representative from New Jersey, cited figures from a former U.S. ambassador indicating that about 48 Eritrean national employees of the embassy were arrested or detained between 2001 and 2010 and it is unclear how many remain in detention. Smith requested additional information relating to those employees and relating to Ciham.

Thomas-Greenfield said the embassy has asked for access and information relating to these cases. “We have had over the years our foreign service nationals harassed. Some arrested and some who are still currently being held by the government,” she said. “We never miss an opportunity to raise this with the government of Eritrea encouraging them to release the American citizen but also to release our employees who have been arrested and to discontinue the harassment of our employees.”

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    Salem Solomon

    Salem Solomon is a journalist and web producer at Voice of America’s Africa Division, where she reports in English, Amharic and Tigrigna. Her work has appeared in The New York Times,, Reuters and The Tampa Bay Times. Salem researches trends in analytics and digital journalism, and her data-driven work has been featured in VOA’s special projects collection.

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