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Eritrean President Under Fire for Silencing Critics - 2001-09-21

Eritrean President Isaias Afworki's crackdown on dissidents and the independent media is drawing international criticism. At least 11 people have been arrested since Tuesday.

There are fears in Eritrea that there will be more arrests in the coming weeks. Amnesty International has expressed concern about the whereabouts and safety of those already in detention, particularly as some are known to be in poor health.

Meanwhile, the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, is condemning Tuesday's closure of all independent newspapers as the most radical and repressive act against the country's private press in years.

And, Human Rights Watch is calling upon President Isaias to free the detained political dissidents immediately, allow university students to return to classes, and lift the newspaper ban.

Elias Habte Selassie of the Life and Peace Institute in Nairobi, a longtime supporter of Eritrea's ruling party, says he and many others are extremely worried by what he calls the heavy-handed way in which the president is silencing his critics. He says those who have been arrested were, until recently, some of the highest-ranking, and most respected members of Eritrea's government, including former Cabinet officials and military officers.

"Within the rank and file of the ruling party, there are a number of discontents," said Mr. Habte Selassie. "I don't think the majority of the veteran fighters who are members of the party are happy about the imprisonment of their former heroes and leaders. Whatever mistakes they make can be handled in another way, but not by force and imprisonment. The intellectuals, the business class, students and even middle-level civil servants, these are people that will feel the discontent."

The former Cabinet ministers and army generals caused shock waves in May when they signed an open letter calling for greater democracy and transparency in Eritrea's government. They were promptly removed from their positions.

According to Mr. Habte Selassie, people are unhappy because President Isaias is backtracking on his promise to introduce democracy.

"I hope Isaias will become sensible enough, and retreat from using force rather than dialogue and reason," said Mr. Habte Selassie. "If he does not, eventually, I think, his popularity will decline. The issues that they have raised are very democratic issues. Are they moving towards implementation of the constitution and moving us from a liberation-based government into a democratic government, which is people-elected? He's giving reasons we are at war, the border situation is not settled, you can't ask these questions. For me, these are lame excuses because you can start step-by-step. But the process has not started. That is what people are asking."

When Eritrea declared itself independent in 1993, there was to be a four-year transitional government. During this time, it was to have prepared for elections. But the current government has now been in power for eight years, including during Eritrea's two-year border war with Ethiopia. There have been no elections in Eritrea, and opposition parties are illegal.

Mr. Habte Selassie says Eritrea will face serious instability if the army gets dragged into the government's political infighting.