Yonas Embaye holding a peaceful demonstration on streets of Kampala expressing free forthe lives of many journalists illegally detained in prisons. “About 30 journalists are still rotting in illegal detention centres in Eritrea,” he says, “I was lucky to escape. For six months we dug our way through a toilet wall, weakening the concrete blocks until it gave way.”Embaye, 29, is an Eritrean journalist seeking asylum in Uganda.
He is describing how in 2001 the Eritrean police swooped on the offices of the Hadas Admas newspaper in Asmara where he worked. They carted off all reporters and editors to a police station where they were interrogated and locked up for six months without being charged before a court of law.
He describes how they were divided into three groups and transferred to Adi Nefasit prison 10km from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.“It is very cold there. We were constantly tortured by sleep deprivation and were interrogated in very cold storage areas for fish. The sanitary conditions in the jail were unhygienic. My editor-in chief Said Abdelkadir died in this prison.” Embaye says that he and some other journalists were later transferred to an illegal detention centre located in an abandoned colonial gold mine. Here they were tortured in an apparent attempt to force them to sign a confession to subversive activity against the Eritrean government.
“We refused. They wanted us to sign those documents to use them for their propaganda. They did everything to us; they beat us, we were starved, electrocuted but we did not sign those documents. We were locked up with religious leaders and political prisoners.”
Embaye pulls sheet after sheet of creased paper from a battered folder file that has obviously been shown to numerous eyes, to back up his claims.
He says September 18, 2001, the day when the Eritrean government forcibly shut-down all private media houses, was the worst day of his life – that and his trials and tribulations as a journalist working for an independent media house in Eritrea. After spending close to three years in detention together with 13 other journalists, Embaye says he escaped together with two others. They wandered through the desert for three days and nights before they got to the Sudan border.
Eritrean border guards shot at them injuring Samuel, a church administrator, in the leg but they kept walking until they got to a refugee camp. “Samuel bled so badly but was strong. Unfortunately however, he died when we got to a refugee camp. He had a heart condition and had not eaten or drunk anything for over 72 hours.”
Embaye insists that the Eritrean government is against press and religious freedom. “Can you imagine that the head of the Orthodox Church is in prison?” he says. According to the International Human right organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the human rights situation in Eritrea has deteriorated over the years. Press freedom organisations like Reporters without Borders and the Community Protect Journalist (CPJ) have since registered 22 journalists still in prison in Eritrea since 2001. “Some of these journalists could be dead for all I know since prisons conditions are inhumane.We were in the process of forming a trade union for journalist. This is possibly why the government cracked down on private media and arrested us,” he says.
Embaye arrived in Uganda about two months ago from Khartoum, Sudan, where he had also sought asylum in 2005. He says he is on the run again – this time from the Sudanese government because of his human rights work in Sudan. While in Sudan, Embaye worked for the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development and participated in documenting human rights violations in refugee camps in Darfur. It is estimated that over 200, 000 innocent people have been killed and 2.5 million civilians driven from their homes in Darfur over the last four years.
The documentation Embaye worked on included testimonies from refugees and video footages depicting torture and the massacre of innocent civilians. This is part of the evidence that the International Criminal Court (ICC) used to indict Sudanese President Omar El Bashir. In March the Sudanese government suspended the operations of 52 humanitarian organizations operating in the Darfur area after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir. Embaye’s asylum application is being processed in accordance with the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act.
“We have many cases of people claiming harassment, persecution and political problems in their mother countries. Our job is not to push them away but to investigate and process these claims,” says David Apollo Kazungu, an officer in the Office of the Prime Minister, Directorate of Refugees.
He says Embaye has been granted temporary stay only up to the time when his case is concluded. No details about Embaye could be got from the Sudanese Embassy.
Embaye speaks passionately about his nine-year quest for press freedom and human rights that brought him at logger heads with the Eritrean and Sudanese authority. He vows not to quit his cause until Eritrean president Isaias Afworki orders the immediate release of all detained journalists.
He wants Afworki to be made to respect press freedoms and basic human rights. “I will continue to fight for my collegues in prison until they are freed. The international community must compel the Eritrean government to release all journalist and religious leaders, re-introduce religious tolerance and free press.”