It is widely reported that Eritrea detained four British nationals last December. The four British nationals are still under arrest in Eritrea without any court authorization and denying access to the British Embassy. The issue had caused a serious diplomatic row between the two countries.
The issue had been raised to the Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki last month. His response, as reported by An Eritrean website, Awate, was:
In a wide-ranging interview broadcast on state media on Friday[April 29], Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki commented on the four British ex-Marines who have been detained in Eritrea since December 2010; the sanctions imposed by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in December 2009, and the absence of civil society in Eritrea
President Isaias dismissed the British government’s request that his government comply with Geneva Conventions regarding its four nationals who were arrested after an exchange of gunfire in the Red Sea. “They had heavy weaponry, goggles, snipers…what were they doing there?” he said, equating their presence in Eritrea as that of a burglar in a house. The emphasis, he implied, should be on why the burglar is in the house, and not what his rights are now that he has been caught.
He said that although his government had not publicized it, there were also other incidents, particularly since gold was discovered in Bisha, of heavily armed people who, presumably, have been detained.
The British government says that its nationals are ex-Royal marines who were in the Red Sea to help shipping companies foil Somali pirates
A few days ago, however, a pro-Eritrea journalist posted a baffling story titled ‘Caught Red Handed; British Assassins in the Horn of Africa’. The story posted on May 17 narrates how four British who were ‘preparing an attempt to assassinate the top leadership of the Eritrean government ‘ had been caught in the Eritrean north-east port town Massawa.
Though the story claims the incident occurred in February, I couldn’t any report of British nationals detained in Eritrea after December 2010.[It is not clear whether the journalist mistaken the date or it is an attempt to create confusion].
The main thrust of the story is the following:
In early February of this year, 2011, a six man squad of British mercenaries were caught red handed in the midst of preparing an attempt to assassinate the top leadership of the Eritrean government in the port city of Massawa on the Red Sea.
Of the six, four were apprehended and two managed to escape, abandoning their mates while blazing out of Massawa Bay into the Red Sea in an inflatable speed boat, never to be seen again by Eritrean eyes.
A search of the vessel they arrived on uncovered a cache of tools of the assassin’s trade. Included was a small arsenal of automatic weapons, a sophisticated satellite communications system, state of the art electronic target range finders, and most damning, several sniper rifles.
All of those arrested have since been confirmed as employees of a British “security” firm akin to the notorious US company Blackwater/Xe. At least two of the four are former British Special Forces. As in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA killer caught in the act in Pakistan, the British Foreign Office has been claiming Geneva Convention protections for these gun thugs all but confirming their being on an official mission for the British Government.
Their arrest took place just a few hundred yards from our Red Sea home in Massawa, and happened while we were there. In the weeks and months that followed, each time I have driven by that spot, I have felt a sick feeling in my stomach, for the salt embankment they were hiding behind has an unobstructed view of the site where just a few days later all the top leadership of the Eritrean government would be gathering for the annual outdoor celebration of the 1990 capture of the Port of Massawa by Eritrean liberation fighters.
These professional killers were discovered almost by accident by a woman taking a shortcut home through an adjacent out-of-service salt flat. The woman noticed, as all good Eritreans should, that sa’ada, white people, were taking photos (with telephoto lenses) somewhere they were not allowed. These Brit “diplomats” took their sweet time scoping out their firing points and parameters of their potential killing field for their discoverer had to walk almost a mile to the nearest police station to report this and then the police had to drive the roundabout route to the spot in question.
But for the vigilance of one Eritrean woman, Eritrea might have experienced an unthinkable disaster, the loss of Eritrea’s President and only god knows how many of Eritrea’s top leaders.
[The story is by Thomas C. Mountain who ‘has been living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006’.]
It is to be recalled that the British MPs urged their government for stronger action against the Asmaran regime. Here is the full text of the debate on the issue held in the United Kingdom House of Commons(parliament) on April 5/2011.[The debate also provides the context of the detention and British efforts so far.]
British Nationals (Eritrea)
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the steps being taken to gain consular access to, and secure the release of, the British nationals taken prisoner by the Eritrean authorities in December 2010.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham):I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for taking up this case on behalf of his constituents and my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the efforts that they have made.
I reassure the House that I and Foreign Office officials across the world are working to ensure that our ambassador is given consular access to all the men. I am very concerned, as it has now been more than three months since they were detained. As I am sure Members will appreciate, we cannot interfere in the judicial process of another country or request that the men be released, but under the Vienna convention we should be allowed to check on the welfare of detained British nationals.
It might help the House if I give the background to the case. On 24 December last year, the FCO was notified of the disappearance of a UK-registered vessel off Eritrea. The British ambassador in Asmara was subsequently advised that four British nationals on board had been detained by the Eritrean navy. The Eritrean authorities have not officially informed us of the circumstances surrounding the men’s detention, or of any charges being made against them. The men’s employers have told us, however, that it appears to be for the non-payment of fuel.
The United Kingdom and Eritrea are part of the Vienna convention on consular relations, which states that, among other things, consular access should be provided to detained foreign nationals in a “timely manner”. This is usually interpreted as meaning 24 to 48 hours. The fact that we have not received any response from the Eritrean authorities after nearly four months is deeply troubling.
Since the detention of the men, I have summoned the Eritrean ambassador, Tesfamicael Gerahtu, to London three times and spoken to him on five or six other occasions specifically to request, and to make clear the importance we attach to gaining, consular access. Indeed, I summoned him this morning for an interview about coffee to emphasise the importance of consular access and of our need to receive a response to all our requests. I have also written to the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, to reiterate this request and to ask to speak to him urgently. I have not received a response.
Our ambassador in Eritrea has made regular representations to the Eritrean authorities to gain consular access, including to the Foreign Ministry and the office of the President. As of yet, there has been no formal response from the Eritrean Government to these requests, but our ambassador will continue to push for a response. The Foreign Secretary has instructed British embassies in several capitals, including New York, Beijing, Nairobi and Khartoum, to raise this issue as a matter of priority with their local Eritrean ambassadors. They have done so and the Eritrean ambassadors have agreed to report our concerns to Asmara.
Most recently, on 25 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development requested a telephone call with President Isaias to discuss the issue. We have not yet had a formal response. In the event that President Isaias does not agree to a telephone call, or that it does not result in consular access being granted, the Foreign Secretary will write to him to reiterate our request and to make it clear that we take Eritrea’s non-compliance with the Vienna convention very seriously and will look to take tough measures in response, if necessary.
We have changed our travel advice for Eritrea specifically to highlight the difficulty in securing consular access and in our being able to provide general consular services. We encourage people considering travel to Eritrea to take into account the restrictions placed by the Eritrean Government and the lack of consular access. We will continue to push this issue until access is granted. If this means taking a different and more robust approach, we are prepared to do exactly that.
Mr Liddell-Grainger:I thank my hon. Friend and the Foreign Office for all the help they have given; we all know that the situation is extremely difficult, and we know the Eritreans of old.
What information has the Minister had from the EU, and can we ask it for help? The United Nations has access to many countries where, perhaps, we are not so popular. Can the Minister arrange some form of access to Eritrea for UN people? Finally, and perhaps most difficult, could the Foreign Office send an envoy, almost to camp on the Eritreans’ doorstep, primarily to get the British nationals out? It is not acceptable, in any country, for there to be no access, certainly not since Christmas eve, and for our not knowing whether our nationals are being held in humane conditions or being subjected to any form of torture or hardship.
I urge the Minister to continue what he is doing, although I suspect that more meetings without coffee might be the order of the day.
Mr Bellingham:I again congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing the case with such tenacity and determination.
We will discuss this with our EU counterparts and, indeed, with every EU Foreign Minister. Although the EU and the UN would not normally get involved in consular cases, this issue goes beyond one consular case because it involves non-compliance with the Vienna convention and it is extremely serious. That is why we shall urge the EU to put on as much pressure as possible. I know that the EU generally is very concerned about the lack of movement that its ambassadors are allowed in Eritrea and the consular support they are able to give their citizens.
I was at the UN in New York at the start of the month and mentioned the case to the Eritrean permanent representative. Although organisations such as the UN and the African Union do not get involved in consular cases, this has gone beyond the principle of dealing with a consular case to the complete lack of adherence to the Vienna convention, which is why it is so serious.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I join the Minister in congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this important urgent question and on his efforts on behalf of his constituents and those of the hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). The Minister has Labour’s full support in his efforts and in all that he has outlined today.
I take this opportunity to welcome the efforts of the British consular services in addressing the difficult challenges in this case and, more broadly, in accessing and assisting British nationals encountering difficulty overseas. In the light of today’s case and of other recent events in north Africa and the middle east, will the Minister update the House on the lessons being learned by British consular services in obtaining access to and supporting British nationals facing danger overseas?
We are concerned by the lack of progress with human rights in Eritrea, as detailed in the recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights and Democracy” report. We are also concerned about the ongoing border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia—a conflict that has cost the lives of 100,000 people—and Eritrea’s alleged support for Islamist rebels in Somalia. Will the Minister take the opportunity of today’s urgent question to update the House on the Government’s efforts to promote peace, human rights and security in Eritrea and the wider region?
Mr Bellingham:I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his generous praise for the FCO’s consular service, which does an excellent job, often in difficult circumstances. They are perfectionists. They put the duty of care to UK citizens absolutely at the heart of their work. I believe that they are always looking to improve their service and to learn lessons. I can assure him that if lessons can be learnt from this case, we will certainly learn them.
On the point about human rights in Eritrea, I certainly agree that the lack of political, religious and media freedoms and the policy of sometimes indefinite military conscription are big concerns. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have added Eritrea as a country of concern in the latest FCO human rights report because of the lack of progress being made on those concerns. With regard to Eritrea’s alleged support for terrorism in the horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia, as he knows, we helped to sponsor UN Security Council resolution 1907, which put an arms embargo on Eritrea. Indeed, there is provision in the resolution to impose a travel ban and an asset freeze. I can update him that the monitoring group dealing with that will report later this year. We certainly urge Eritrea to improve its human rights record, comply absolutely with the UN resolution and sort out this very serious consular case, because until that happens we will be unable to have a normal bilateral relationship with that country.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and the work that he, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the consular service have done so far. Several months have now elapsed and Eritrea has been wholly unresponsive to our entreaties. Even failed states and narco-regimes tend to take our telephone calls, but Eritrea has not. The individuals concerned need the continued help and assistance of Her Majesty’s Government. We have no idea in what conditions they are being detained. Will he assure the House that every effort will continue to be made to obtain proper consular access for those individuals and, if necessary, to escalate the situation so that Eritrea understands the import of our demands?
Mr Bellingham:I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he too has taken a close interest in the case. I certainly agree that we have been incredibly patient. We have made telephone calls and demanded that Eritrea complies with the Vienna convention. As I said in my statement, we will now look at more robust measures. I made it very clear to the Eritrean ambassador this morning that there is a range of robust measures that we could take. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary is fully apprised of this and is looking at exactly what additional tough and robust action we can take. My hon. Friend alluded to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made a moment ago about sending a special envoy, which we have certainly not ruled out. We have an ambassador in Asmara who is doing her level best to get consular access, but we will certainly consider sending a special envoy to demand consular access if it is shown that that would be beneficial and if we feel that results could flow from it.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on raising the matter and the Government on including Eritrea as a country of concern in the human rights report published last week. Is there a possible role for other African countries in resolving the issue, and would the Minister say a little more on the question of Eritrea’s relations with its neighbours?
Mr Bellingham:I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because in his time as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee he obviously had substantial involvement with the horn of Africa. On his first point, it is a consular case, rather than an African issue as such. However, as I said a moment ago, this has gone beyond what I would describe as a routine consular case, which would be a purely bilateral matter. That is why we will involve the EU, the UN and possibly the AU. We will do that because we feel that the matter is tarnishing Eritrea’s reputation substantially. Furthermore, I agree with him that until Ethiopia and Eritrea resolve their border dispute and the demarcation of the border, there will be simmering discontent and a malaise between them that will make dealing with either country to try to solve issues such as this or the problems in Somalia much more difficult. That is why solving the border dispute is so incredibly important.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and other hon. Members who are pursuing the interests of their constituents in this regard. I also congratulate the British Government on their persistence. Given the failure of the Asmara Government to abide by international standards, both in respect of consular access and in many other regards, are the British Government exploiting all the possible informal channels, including non-governmental organisations and possibly religious leaders and influences, to try to get some kind of traction with this unco-operative Government in Eritrea<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = [default] http://www.parliament.uk/commons/hansard/print NS = "http://www.parliament.uk/commons/hansard/print" />?
Mr Bellingham:I thank the hon. Gentleman, because he makes a good suggestion. We should leave no stone unturned. We have been very patient and gone through the usual channels, but now we will look at a menu of more robust action. For obvious reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to tell the House what that action might be. I agree that involving charities, businesses, NGOs and churches might be a very good move. I simply add that on the two occasions on which I have met the Eritrean Foreign Minister, he has impressed upon me how incredibly keen he is to improve relations, build business links between our two countries and work together on issues such as solving human rights problems.
Michael Ellis:He is not doing a very good job.
Mr Bellingham:I quite agree. He made it very clear that that is what he wanted to do, but I made it clear to him in my letter that all that has been put in jeopardy by the total non-compliance with the Vienna convention.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Piracy off the horn of Africa is increasing, with the use of mother ships extending the pirates’ range, and we are also seeing evidence of piracy taking place off the west coast of Africa. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage the Eritrean authorities to tackle piracy? If those steps come to nothing, is he prepared to adopt a more muscular policy to deal with piracy on the high seas?
Mr Bellingham:I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because piracy, as he rightly points out, has reached a new and worrying level. There are 40 vessels now under pirate control and in excess of 600 hostages. Of course we are looking at what happens at sea—the Royal Navy has three warships off the horn of Africa as part of the counter-piracy effort—but it is very important that a solution be found on land so that capacity can be built, such as detention facilities and prisons for when pirates are convicted. That is why the UK recently gave £6 million to support projects being delivered by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I agree with him that it is very important that all the regional maritime states work together to try to counter the evil of piracy.
Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I thank the Minister for his answers so far on the urgent question. I very much appreciate the work that he, the Foreign Office and the desk officers at the consular directorate have done to keep me up to date on the possible whereabouts of my detained constituent and to inform his wife of any changes. Eritrea is in gross breach of the Vienna convention, and I wonder whether a meeting without coffee is quite strong enough. I urge the Minister to escalate to the robust action that he mentioned in his statement as quickly as possible to get our constituents out of that place.
Mr Bellingham:I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he has been very patient, as indeed have the families of the men who have been detained. As I made clear to him when we met, we are in no way trying to interfere in the court case or in any action that might be taken, but we are demanding consular access. I agree that the time has come to embark upon more robust action. The Foreign Secretary is fully apprised of this and has approved a strategy to take more robust action if need be. We will have to wait and see whether the Eritrean ambassador acts on the demands we made this morning. If he does not, we will have to go down that route. I thank my hon. Friend and the families involved once again for their patience.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): In his interview without coffee this morning, did the Minister get any closer to determining from the Eritrean ambassador the reasons underpinning the detention of these individuals, as the given reasons appear wholly inadequate?
Mr Bellingham:I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We are demanding consular access under the Vienna convention, of which both Eritrea and the UK are members. All we are asking for is the opportunity to check on those men, to check their welfare and to inform the families accordingly. We are not trying to interfere with the judicial process, and we are not in any way trying to cast aspersions on their detention as such. I think that the Eritrean Government are confusing the two, but we are doing our level best to make sure that they understand their responsibilities and duties under the convention.