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UN Investigator Calls for End to Eritrea's Indefinite National Service

FILE - President Isaias Afwerki.
FILE - President Isaias Afwerki.

A UN Investigator finds a persistent pattern of human rights violations in Eritrea severely restricts the fundamental freedoms of its citizens through punishments that often have fatal consequences. Sheila Keetharuth has presented her final report as Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea to the UN Human Rights Council.

Sheila Keetharuth says there have been no improvements in Eritrea's human rights situation since she began her mandate as Special Rapporteur six years ago.

The main violations she identified then, she says, persist to this day. These include arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention, indefinite military or national service amounting to forced labor. She describes a host of other abusive practices that deprive people of their fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

"I call on Eritrea to put an immediate stop to the indefinite national service and to arbitrary arrest and detention," said Keetharuth. "It should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained especially children, women, the elderly and prisoners of conscience."

Eritrea's system of indefinite national service often lasts for decades. The conscripts include boys and girls as young as 16, as well as the elderly who are used as forced labor. Forced military conscription is the main reason why young Eritreans flee to other countries seeking asylum.

Keetharuth is particularly critical of the country's harsh prison conditions. She says prisoners are kept in overcrowded cells where food is inadequate and bad. She says access to fresh air and natural light is limited and poor nutrition and lack of health care often leads to death in custody.

"The Eritrean authorities intentionally use conditions and regime of detention as a means of torture or in support of other methods to increase the pain and suffering of inmates to achieve specific objectives," said Keetharuth.

Eritrean charge d'affaires, Bereket Woldeyohannes poured scorn upon the Special Rapporteur's report saying it was destructive, lacking in objectivity and impartiality. He appealed to the Council to bring to an end, what he called this unfair and counter-productive process and experience.