FILE - An Eritrean refugee holds a placard during a protest against the Eritrean government outside their embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel May 11, 2015.
FILE - An Eritrean refugee holds a placard during a protest against the Eritrean government outside their embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel May 11, 2015.

Eritrea: UN Report on Rights Violations 'Devoid of Merit'

Eritrea is dismissing what it calls the "indecent hyperbole" of Monday's U.N. Human Rights Commission report accusing the country of "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations."

In a statement Tuesday, the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the report, which described alleged extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual slavery in the secretive Horn of Africa state, as "totally unfounded and devoid of all merit."

It says the accusations are the continuation of a "politically-motivated campaign to undermine Eritrea's political, economic and social progress, including in the area of human rights." The statement did not address the specific allegations made in the report, which followed a year-long investigation.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have long accused the Eritrean government of oppressing its own people.

This week's report from a U.N. commission of inquiry said the government represses the rights to free expression, opinion, assembly and religion. It says Eritreans accused of crimes are not given fair trials and are subjected to arbitrary detention, solitary confinement and labor camps.

The report concluded that slavery-like practices are routine in Eritrea and torture is so widespread that it was likely the government's policy was to encourage its use.

It further said Eritrea effectively enslaves people by a system known as "national service" that involves "torture, sexual torture, forced labor, [and] absence of leave."

National service is supposed to last 18 months, but the U.N. commission said it interviewed one Eritrean who had fled after 17 years in effective detention. Witnesses reported people being executed for trying to avoid being drafted into service as recently as 2013, according to the report.

The commission also said those wishing to leave the country are hampered by strict government controls on movement and a shoot-to-kill policy implemented by the military in border areas to prevent people from fleeing. The U.N. commission said people were still being shot in 2014, including children. The government says it has ended the policy.

Despite such measures, tens of thousands of Eritreans flee the country each year, with many trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

Eritrea maintains a vast detention network and regards anyone who tries to leave the country as a traitor. About 6 percent to 10 percent of Eritreans are now registered as refugees by the United Nations, and Eritreans are prominent in a growing wave of migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to make their way by boat across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The U.N. report said the main perpetrators of the rights violations include President Isaias Afwerki, his party, the Eritrean army and the ministries of information, justice and defense.

The panel said it was unable to visit Eritrea and received no response from the government to its requests for information during a process that involved 550 interviews and 160 written submissions.

Portions of this report are from Reuters.