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Dawit Isaak and the failure of silent diplomacy: In conversation with Björn Tunbäck

Dawit Isaak, a Swedish and Eritrean citizen, is a journalist and one of the founders of Setit, Eritrea's first independent newspaper. Following Setit's publication of an open letter calling for the implementation of the new constitution and elections, Dawit was arrested with ten other journalists in September 2001. He was unexpectedly released for medical treatment in 2005, but was quickly re-arrested and has been held incommunicado ever since. Björn Tunbäck of Reporters Without Borders (Sweden) and Swedish PEN has been involved in the campaign for Dawit's release from the start. He told Cathal Sheerin about the campaign in Sweden and what states and intergovernmental organisations could be doing, but aren't.

Dawit Isaak
Dawit Isaak

What do we know about Dawit's current condition?

We don't know, and that's one of the ways that Eritrea is violating his basic human rights. We don't know where he is or how he is, but we do know that he's not allowed to see a doctor, his family, or Swedish diplomats. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has received reliable reports that several of his colleagues have died in prison over the years, but we believe that Dawit is still alive.

Prison conditions in Eritrea are extremely harsh. Some prisoners are kept in shipping containers out in the desert. But there are other prisons too, where prisoners are kept manacled in small concrete cells, where they never see their colleagues. There was a prison guard who fled Eritrea in 2010 and he talked about how he wasn't allowed to reply to the prisoners if they said anything. There are reports that some prisoners are let out of their cells for an hour a day, but that because of the height of the walls around them, all they can see is the sky.

How did the campaign for Dawit begin?

Dawit is from my hometown of Gothenburg; his family lives here and I met his younger brother, Esayas, early on. He had been advocating for Dawit's release from the moment of his arrest. When RSF launched its Press Freedom Prize in 2003, it was quite obvious that Dawit would be the ideal candidate for it.

At the start, we were mainly focused on awareness-raising, in telling Swedes that a fellow Swede had been jailed. We were pretty successful. The public are now generally aware of his case and the press makes sure he's not forgotten: the biggest morning newspaper here publishes a little cartoon everyday relating to his case; one of the major tabloids has Dawit's image on the opinion page daily, counting the days since he was arrested.

In 2010, we published translations of some of Dawit's writings, including a novel, Hope. One of the problems we'd faced in the early days was that there were very few images of Dawit circulating - only a couple of photos from the late 80s - and so, to most people, he was little more than an outdated picture. But the book, which was well-received in Sweden, allowed people to get to know him a little bit; it made him more flesh and blood. It was dramatised on national radio, and it is a tool we continue to use. Dawit was so young when he wrote those texts; he was 36 when he was arrested and now he is 54: how many more books could he have written?

There's now a large group of activists and journalists who meet up regularly to discuss our strategy related to Dawit, including the Union of Journalists, the Association of Newspaper Publishers, the Writers Union and PEN Sweden.

A shipping container bearing a sign which translates as 'This is not a container, it is a prison' is used in a demonstration by Reporters Without Borders, in Paris, France, 16 December 2014, in support of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea and elsewhere
A shipping container bearing a sign which translates as 'This is not a container, it is a prison' is used in a demonstration by Reporters Without Borders, in Paris, France, 16 December 2014, in support of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea and elsewhere


What's been the Eritrean response in Sweden?

Every week, a member of our group goes to the Eritrean embassy in Stockholm and delivers a letter demanding Dawit's release. In the beginning, the Eritreans just seemed puzzled; then, for a while, they taped up their letterbox so that we couldn't put the letters through the door. After that, they refused to answer the door. And sometimes they'd allow people in but make them wait a long time before allowing them to leave. Other times they've been friendly, but there's never been any real engagement; we've invited them several times to public meetings but they don't come.

President Afewerki has said of Dawit: "We will not have any trial and we will not free him… Sweden is irrelevant. The Swedish government has nothing to do with us". What can states or intergovernmental organisations do with any hope of success?

Really, it's hard to know. Eritrea is now on the Human Rights Council, and we've had a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia since July 2018, but nothing has changed in terms of human rights; no political prisoners have been released. The UN lifted sanctions against Eritrea very recently, though these were not imposed because of human rights violations: maybe they should be re-introduced specifically because of Eritrea's human rights record?

The EU could certainly do more. It gives Eritrea a lot of aid and should definitely be more engaged. In the most recent aid talks (2015), Dawit's name was not even raised, not by the EU, not by Sweden. That is very strange: you're talking about giving aid to the nation that has jailed the only European citizen and journalist who's actually an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.

Of course we talk to the Swedish government, and it's not like they're doing nothing, but what they are doing is what we call 'silent diplomacy'. They haven't tried any tougher tactics, such as those the UK used when four British citizens were detained in Eritrea in December 2010 and accused of spying; the UK government imposed sanctions on Eritrean diplomatic staff in London and ordered the embassy to suspend a 2% tax it was levying on Eritreans living in the UK: the detained Britons were freed in June 2011.

How does the Swedish government's 'silent diplomacy' sit with the more assertive, high-profile action undertaken by your group and others?

There have been two private criminal complaints made to the police on Dawit's behalf (Esayas and I were complainants on the second of these). The Prosecutor General found that, legally speaking, Dawit's detention should be investigated. He said that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Dawit's treatment qualifies as a crime against humanity and that the responsibility rests with some of the most senior people in the Eritrean government, people who visit Sweden – the president's advisors, some of the ministers - and who should be questioned by the police. However, because the Foreign Ministry says that that would make it difficult for them to carry on with their 'silent diplomacy' strategy, the Prosecutor General has decided against opening an investigation.

And this is despite an explicit recommendation in the 2016 report of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea to the Human Rights Council calling on member states to bring to court all those suspected of committing crimes against humanity.

Of course silent diplomacy can be useful - sometimes you definitely should keep it silent. But when Dawit's already been in prison for more than 17 years, shouldn't you try something else? They've been negotiating 'silently' for more than a decade.

How has all this affected Dawit's family in Sweden?

His youngest daughter doesn't remember him. His oldest daughter will soon be 25; she's been forced to grow up without her father and is now engaging in her own way in efforts to improve the rights situation for all Eritreans, including her father.

They suffer a lot of stress. There's a reasonably strong group of Eritreans living in Sweden who are regime loyalists, and there is a history of harassment; they even talked on local radio about cutting out the tongues of those, such as Esayas, who criticise the regime. At demonstrations, they go up to regime critics and film them close up, intimidating them. There have also been physical threats to some of the pro-Dawit activists.

Do you think you'll see Dawit released?

We have to keep hoping; if we do nothing it certainly won't happen. I personally think he will eventually be released in some state, but, after such long-term isolation, I'm worried about what state that might be.

At this point, would publish: "Home page(home_page)"

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