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Eritrea: no reprieve for journalists; Dozens of local journalists have been detained without trial by the Eritrean government. One of them, Dawit Isaak, who holds dual Swedish and Eritrean nationality, has become a cause celebre in Sweden. Simon Reeves reports from Stockholm.

Dawit Isaak has been detained without trial in Eritrea for more than three years. He is one of dozens of local journalists to be so detained, and in spite of diplomatic activity by the Swedish government and calls by media and human rights groups to have them either immediately released or brought to trial, their future remains uncertain.

Isaak has spent more than 1,100 days in custody, for allegedly destabilising Eritrea by publishing details of calls by government politicians for democratic reforms in his Asmara-based private newspaper, Setit. That was back in 2001. Since then virtually no access has been granted to his family, the Swedish authorities or human rights groups.

The Eritrean ambassador to Sweden, Araya Desta, says the concerted campaign by Swedish politicians and interest groups for Isaak's release is an exercise in futility. "No pressure with foreign motive will be accepted," Desta told New African, warning that people should "keep their hands off Eritrea" and that interference will not help. His comments followed persistent calls, especially by the Swedish Liberal Party, for Isaak's freedom. "I think the [Swedish] foreign minister needs to go to Eritrea. This case is not only about a dictatorial regime but also about Dawit's life," said Cecelia Wigstrom, a Liberal Party politician and member of the Swedish parliament.

Ambassador Desta has accused the Liberal Party of harbouring a hidden agenda. He said Iasak violated Eritrean press laws by using "external funds" to operate his newspaper during the war with Ethiopia.

The Liberal Party has rejected Desta's claims that it provided the funds for Isaak to set up his newspaper. "It is a lie. For us, the issue of human rights is central to our ideology," the party has said.

Desta says Isaak, who fled to Sweden during Eritrea's war of independence, returned home on an Eritrean passport and was given permission to operate the newspaper, without the government investigating first where his money came from.


But Lief Orbink, a member of the committee campaigning for Isaak's release, claims the journalist entered Eritrea on a Swedish passport. The committee, he said, has a copy of the passport with Eritrean immigration stamps in it.

On why Eritrea has failed to put him before trial, Ambassador Desta said there were more pressing issues of national security and sovereignty facing the country than Isaak's case. "He will be brought to trial at the appropriate time," the ambassador added.

The Swedish official, Hans Dahlgren, has added his voice to the demand for the journalist to be freed or put on trial. He says the Eritrean authorities have not been open to discussion on the case. According to him, the Swedish foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, tried in vain in September to meet her Eritrean counterpart at the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss Isaak's fate.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Reeves, Simon
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ERIT
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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