(By: Aaron Berhane)
Evading arrest under gunfire, I fled Eritrea in 2001, arriving in Canada near the end of the following year. More than eight more years would pass before I could bring my wife and children here. They joined me in 2010, after crossing the Sudanese border with the help of a professional smuggler. Others have been less fortunate. More than 30 journalists are imprisoned in Eritrea today.
Eritrea gained independence on May 24, 1993, but for most of us the conclusion of the long and bloody war of independence against Ethiopia two years earlier remains the true moment of liberation. President Isaias Afwerki, a war hero, came to power then, vowing to lead us out of the past. Like most Eritreans, I hoped he would succeed and show the world we were above the corruption and dictatorship that engulfs so many young nations. But today, there is little to celebrate in Eritrea.
Isaias has become a ruthless tormentor of his own people. Eritrea consistently appears at the bottom of any index on press freedom, occasionally trading places with North Korea. There is no independent judiciary. Unions and political opposition parties are illegal, as are peaceful demonstrations and public meetings. A gathering of more than seven people is punishable by law. Only a handful of religions are able to practice their faith. For a decade the regime has enforced its emigration ban with a shoot-to-kill policy at the border. Nonetheless, some 3,000 youths reportedly flee the country each month — our entire population is 5.2 million. According to UN statistics, Eritrea has more per capita refugees than almost any other country.
Ten years after independence, I had become co-founder and editor-in-chief of Setit, the first and largest independent newspaper in Eritrea. Gravely dissatisfied with the way the country was run, I pressed for reforms, asking the government to implement the constitution; to eradicate corruption among the senior ranks of the military; to improve education and health care; and to review land and investment policies. I ran the paper under harsh conditions. Intimidation and threats were a part of life.
In September 2001 Isaias silenced the independent media, shuttering private newspapers and arresting reporters and editors. Several prominent public figures, including former politicians and respected war veterans, all of whom had signed an open letter calling for democratic reforms, were arrested in a series of police raids. By Sept. 25 the authorities had arrested at least 10 reporters and editors. They have remained incarcerated without due process since 2001; five are confirmed dead and no one knows the fate of the others, not even their families.
Some 20,000 Eritreans now live in the Greater Toronto Area. Harassment and fear have followed many of them here. The Eritrean consulate in Canada asks them to provide T4 slips and other Canada Revenue Agency documents as proof of their Canadian income. The government of Eritrea then uses this information to impose an additional 2-per-cent tax on their incomes. Refusal to pay results in the withholding of basic documents such as educational records and birth and marriage certificates. Family members in Eritrea find their applications for business licence renewals declined. Even those who need nothing from the Eritrean government are approached and intimidated by agents of the regime to pay the tax.
The UN has sanctioned Eritrea for its support of Al Shabaab, the insurgent group in neighbouring Somalia with alleged links to Al Qaeda. Last December, a UN Security Council resolution condemned “Eritrea’s use of the ‘diaspora tax’ . . . to destabilize the Horn of Africa region . . . and decided that Eritrea shall cease those practices. It further decided that Eritrea shall stop using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent.”
The tax continues to be collected, however, and Eritrean Canadians could be forgiven for wondering who governs them here in Canada. The Canadian government must act to create a secure environment for their citizens of Eritrean descent. It must also pressure the Isaias regime to honour basic human rights norms, and to release the incarcerated journalists. When the government of our adopted land is willing to defend these rights, perhaps then we will truly have a reason to celebrate.
* Originally published on the Canadian outlet The Star, on May 14, 2012, titled ‘Eritrean repression follows emigrants to Canada’ and authored by Aaron Berhane, who is an award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief and publisher of the Eritrean Canadian newspaper Meftih. He is also one of PEN Canada’s Writers-in-Exile.
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