(Nairobi) – The Eritrean government should immediately release Ciham Ali Abdu, unlawfully held since she was arrested a decade ago, when she was only 15, Human Rights Watch said today. She is a dual United States-Eritrean national.
Ciham was born in Los Angeles on April 3, 1997, but moved to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, with her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, when he took up a position as a government official under President Isaias Afewerki. In 2012, Ali Abdu, information minister at the time, fled to Australia after a rift with the president. Shortly afterward, on December 8, 2012, Ciham was arrested while trying to flee to Sudan for her safety. She has never been charged with any offense and has not been seen since then.
“Eritrea’s government has robbed Ciham Ali Abdu of 10 years of her life, effectively disappearing her since she was 15,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea should immediately and unconditionally release Ciham, and countless others unlawfully detained across the country.”
Eritrea’s repressive government imposes severe restrictions on its population, including on freedom of expression, opinion, and faith. The government forcibly recruits much of its adult population into indefinite military or national service.
Eritrean authorities also detained Ciham’s 87-year-old grandfather, Abdu Ahmed Younes, and her uncle, Hassen Abdu Ahmed, after Ali fled. Abdu died shortly after his release in December 2017, while Hassen remains in detention.
A relative of Ciham told Human Rights Watch they have not received any information from the government on Ciham’s whereabouts or wellbeing since her arrest, constituting an enforced disappearance.
Enforced disappearances are defined under international human rights law as the arrest or detention of a person by the authorities followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.
International and regional actors, notably the US government given Ciham’s dual nationality, should press for immediate information on her whereabouts and well-being, confirmation that she is still alive, and call for her unconditional release, Human Rights Watch said.
To mark the 10 year anniversary of her arrest, an Eritrean diaspora group, One Day Seyoum, is drawing attention to her plight with a social media campaign calling on people to light a candle and hold 10 minutes of silence in her honor.
The Eritrean government has used mass roundups and prolonged arbitrary arrests and detentions without access to legal counsel, judicial review, or family visits, in some cases for decades, against perceived opponents or to prevent and punish perceived criticism. Many detainees, including high government officials and journalists arrested in 2001 after they questioned Isaias’s leadership, have been held incommunicado for over 21 years or perhaps have died in detention.
Many prisoners languish in the country’s extensive formal and informal prison network, in overcrowded detention sites, with inadequate food, water, and medical care.
Arbitrary incarceration is common. In recent months, the government has temporarily detained scores of people accused of evading the country’s indefinite military conscription, as well as relatives of these alleged “draft evaders,” and religious leaders.
Between October 11 and 15, 2022, the Eritrean government without explanation detained three Catholic priests, Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam, Father Mihretab Stefanos, and Bishop Abune Fikremariam Hagos, who was arrested at Asmara airport on October 15 as he returned from a trip abroad. In 2019, Abune Hagos, along with three other Catholic bishops, had published a pastoral letter calling for democratic reform in the country. The bishops have also called for peace in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and raised concerns about abuses there.
Eritrea also detains people purely for their religious beliefs. While several people belonging to faiths that the government does not recognize were released in 2020 and 2021, others affiliated with these “unrecognized” faiths continue to be imprisoned for attending religious meetings and for conscientious objection. Twenty Jehovah witnesses remain in detention, including 80-year-old Tesfazion Gebremichael who has been in detention since 2011.
“As global attention focuses on ongoing abuses by Eritrean forces in Ethiopia, it should amplify efforts to end the daily repression faced by Eritreans back home,” Bader said. “Eritrea’s regional and international partners should make clear that no government can get away with disappearing people.”