A United Nations report listed about 15 different methods of torture applied by the Eritrean regime.

Descriptions and drawings of the various torture methods were provided by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea‘s report, released last Monday.

The Commission has been investigating “violations directly committed by Eritrean public officials; committed at their instigation or with their consent or acquiescence” for about a year.

The 484 pages report further noted, “the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity.”

Here are 15 torture methods briefly described in the report.


1/ Beatings

During the beatings victims are usually tied, including with cuffs, and water is sometimes poured over the body, before or during the beatings. Witnesses reported being beaten with sticks (plastic, wooden, metal, square, with nails, etc.), clubs, handles of guns, plastic rods (with wires inside), whips, electric or rubber wires, leather straps, plastic tubes, water pipes, ropes, chains, branches, thorny sticks, etc. They are also punched, slapped and kicked all over the body, including in their face, head, ribs, genitals and on the soles of the feet. In detention, victims are often beaten at night, some on a regular basis and during several months.

Some of the witnesses were beaten by several persons at the same time and many said the beatings were so harsh that the stick used for that purpose broke. Many victims fainted in the course of the beatings and several reported severe injuries such as broken bones and teeth, open wounds and bruises. The Commission also received reports of deaths due to the beatings and long-term effects such as spinal damage (some resulting in paralysis), hearing impairment and memory loss. A witness was beaten so much on the soles of her feet that the skin came off in one piece. She explained that for years her feet remained sore and she could not walk properly. Another witness reported that a conscript was beaten so hard during the training in Sawa that he sustained leg injuries and is dependent on crutches; and another one developed a mental illness after he was kicked on his face until he fell and violently hit his head.

Tying’ methods described below are either used as a stand-alone punishment or accompanied with beatings before, during or after the tying.

2/ Helicopter

The hands and the feet of victims are tied behind their back and they are made to lie on the ground, face down, or suspended in the air. Some witnesses said they were tied with metal strings or plastic ropes. Victims are often beaten or kicked while being tied or suspended in the helicopter position. Testimonies reveal that milk or sugared water is sometimes poured over the body of the victims to attract insects so that they are bitten but cannot relieve their itch.

Victims may be tied for days outside, exposed to extreme temperatures. Witnesses said they are generally only released two or three times a day for meals and to relieve themselves.

Witnesses explained that their arms and legs were wounded and bleeding by the ropes, which were generally placed on the same wounds day after day. After a while, the upper and lower limbs would swell and feel numb and the blood flow was blocked. This sometimes resulted in gangrene and ultimately led to amputations.

Helicopter - Eritrean torture method
Helicopter – Eritrean torture method

3/ Otto

Witnesses described having their arms tied behind their back, face down and lying on the ground. In this position the elbows are brought together. The ties are sometimes made of metal cords. A witness explained a variant consisting in placing two pens between the shoulder blades and tying the victim tight so that the pens penetrate into the flesh.

Even years later, several witnesses displayed scars on the arms and the wrists due to the ropes. Several said victims had their blood circulation blocked by the ropes and they had to undergo an amputation because gangrene had started. A victim also explained that the bones in his chest broke because the torturer pushed his back with his feet while pulling his arms backwards.

In the army, conscripts are often tied up outside of working hours, to ensure that the punishment does not interfere with their work assignments.

Otto - Eritrean torture method
Otto – Eritrean torture method.

4/ Jesus Christ /Crucifixion

Witnesses described having their arms spread out and their wrists tied on the branches of a tree, sometimes with electrical cords, and being left hanging in such a way that they touch the ground only slightly with their toes. Former conscripts reported that in some military units, soldiers were tied in this position to the cannon of a tank. A witness reported being left in Jesus Christ position for 24 hours; another one explained he was only untied when foam started to come out of his mouth. A former soldier described that the hands of conscripts would swell in this position because the blood could not circulate, noting that as a consequence one of his comrades had his hand amputated.

A variant consists of hanging the victim with the wrists tied together to the ceiling of the torture room or the branch of a tree. A witness also explained that onion powder was sprayed in his eyes while he was tied up in the Jesus Christ position.

5/ Almaz (diamond)

The almaz or diamond method is a variant of the Jesus Christ position described above. Victims are generally hung to a tree with their elbows tied behind their back and are forced to stand on tiptoes. A witness said this punishment can last up to 12 hours.

Several victims fainted after a while and witnesses described severe pain in their arms, even months after the torture, and sometimes long-term paralysis of the upper limbs. A witness explained that the arm of a victim had swollen to bursting point after being hung from a tree in the almaz position for six hours. The pain was so intense, he could be heard screaming “Ciao, I am dying” all night.

Almaz - Eritrean torture method
Almaz – Eritrean torture method

6/ Torch

Many witnesses described having their hands and sometimes legs, tied or handcuffed, a stick placed under the knees, and being hung upside down and beaten, especially on the soles of the feet.

Torch - Eritrean torture method
Torch – Eritrean torture method

7/ Ferro

Several testimonies refer to the use of ferro during interrogations. They described ‘special’ iron handcuffs with bolts that can be screwed from underneath to tighten them (“the metal goes inside the flesh”). This creates severe pain with every move and stops the blood flow. Depending on the replies given to the questions of the interrogator, the ferro are tightened or loosened.

Witnesses described severe pain, numbness in the hands which swelled and bled and temporary paralysis due to these ‘special’ handcuffs. One said the paralysis lasted for three months, the pain six months, and six years later he still suffers from neurologic problems and feels pain in his arms. Some victims displayed scars on the wrists from the iron pin.

Ferro - Eritrean torture method
Ferro – Eritrean torture method

8/ Electric shocks

Several witnesses reported the use of electric shocks on their body during interrogation. A witness reported losing consciousness after having received electric shocks on his fingers and toes.

9/ Gomma and some variants

A victim reported being tied in the otto position and placed inside five rubber tyres, head upside-down. His legs and his feet were then beaten.

Another victim reported a variant, whereby he was tied up in the helicopter position with eyes and mouth shut, and forced to lie down on his chest in a narrow barrel in a very uncomfortable and extremely painful position.

A witness described detainees having to take a small container to the top of a hill several times, then being forced to enter into it and being pushed down the hill. Due to this torture, several detainees reportedly become mentally deranged.

10/ Mock drowning

Witnesses described the victims’ head being submerged in water – sometimes dirty – so that they believe they will drown. While most testimonies refer to a barrel or a container full of water in the interrogation room, one reported that the victim was tied to a tree trunk and put all day into a partially empty well.

11/ Buried alive, death threats and mock executions

The Commission received several testimonies describing detainees being forced to dig a hole into the ground, “like a grave” and threatened to be buried inside. Some witnesses were forced to enter into the hole, had dirt piled in it up to their neck and were then threatened with execution or scared with bullets shot next to them. Another said a hammer and a shovel were hung on the door of the interrogation room and he was ordered to tell the truth, otherwise he would be killed with the hammer and buried with the shovel.

Several witnesses told the Commission the interrogators pointed a rifle or a gun to their face and threatened them with death.

12/ Staring at the sun and being exposed to the scorching sun

Several witnesses described a punishment method consisting of being forced to stare at the sun for several hours, and often during several days, when the sun is at its brightest. Victims are reportedly beaten if they close their eyes or move their head away.

Testimonies also reveal that victims are otherwise exposed to the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Witnesses were for instance tied up and forced to lie down or to roll on the hot sand or on iron tanks under scorching sun for several hours, sometimes day after day; or forced to walk barefoot on burning ground. A witness reported for example being chained and left outside, under the sun, from 8 am to 6 pm for forty days. During military training, witnesses were forced to sleep on the hot sand, at temperatures between 35 to 40 degrees, some of them over a period of up to two weeks.

13/ Cold water

Water is poured on the ground and victims are asked to roll on the wet and muddy ground. They are then left dirty, lying on the wet ground and in cold weather (in the highlands) without possibility to wash, sometimes for several weeks.

14/ Use of human waste

The Commission heard two testimonies describing the use of human waste as a form of punishment. In the first, victims tied in the helicopter position were covered with pillows previously soaked in the barrel used by detainees to relieve themselves. The second witness explained that soldiers were asked to pee on the detainees tied up in the otto position and attached to the lid of an oil tank.

15/ Sexual torture

Rape and other forms of ill-treatment and torture targeting victims’ sexual and reproductive organs were documented by the Commission.


Daniel Berhane