Eritrea “has become one big jail,” says an activist whose sister and brother-in-law have been imprisoned for speaking out against the current regime. Senait Yohannes is the sister of Aster Yohannes, who is married to Petros


Solomon. Aster and her husband have been imprisoned for years for their role in seeking political reform and implementation of the Eritrean constitution. Neither has been heard from since they were taken into custody, and the four children they left behind are being raised by their grandparents, according to Senait.


Senait was in New York City July 24 to help bring to world attention the plight of prisoners of conscience, both in her country and the world over. At a panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, she was one of six panelists — the others being from Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Syria and Uzbekistan — to speak out on behalf of those who are not allowed to speak for themselves.


In remarks to an audience of more than 120 diplomats, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and journalists, Senait said many of the people who fought so hard in the decades-long battle for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia now find themselves in jail with no recourse and no contact with the outside world.


“My sister’s story is one of many thousands in Eritrea,” Senait said. “The regime is extremely hostile to any democratic notion or rule of law.” All private news media have been closed down, and many journalists arrested, she said.

  Senait’s brother-in-law, who was a Cabinet minister, and 14 other colleagues (known as the Group of 15 or G-15) wrote an open letter to President Isaias Afwerki and the Eritrean people regarding the need for political reform. The 11 who were in Eritrea at the time were rounded up and have been held incommunicado since 2001.  On December 11, 2003, Senait’s sister Aster returned home to Eritrea to be with her four children after studying for three years in Phoenix, Arizona. She was taken by security personnel from the airport to an undisclosed location and has not been seen or heard from since. In the years since her disappearance, the government of Eritrea has neither charged her nor given any reason for detaining her.  Senait, who was born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea, left her country just as the 30-year war with Ethiopia ended in 1991. She traveled to Ethiopia and Europe before settling in Canada in 1994, where she is now a citizen.  She has been seeking the release of her sister through and publicly speaking about her family’s suffering and the plight of Eritrean people and refugees. She currently is working to get humanitarian assistance to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan.  Senait is also a board member of St. Andrew’s Refugee Association, an organization that provides resettlement assistance and helps sponsor refugees upon their arrival in Canada.  At the U.N. event, Senait demanded that Eritrea allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit detainees, and she called for increased international pressure on governments keeping prisoners of conscience.  Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948, declares that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, there are still governments that detain thousands of people because of their beliefs or political views.  In June 2008, the United States and 63 other U.N. member states sponsored the U.N. Declaration of Prisoners of Conscience. That declaration calls on nations to work for the freedom of prisoners of conscience and to make the release of these prisoners an international priority.  According to Ambassador T. Vance McMahan, U.S. representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, who moderated the July 24 panel discussion called “Courageous Voices,” prisoners of conscience are “courageous men and women who have or continue to suffer from government repression for peacefully advocating change.”  

McMahan called for all U.N. member states and nongovernmental organizations “to redouble current efforts to assist prisoners of conscience and their families and to put an end to all forms of persecution.”