A journalist originally from Eritrea but with Swedish citizenship, Isaak was arrested in September 2001 along with a dozen newspaper owners, editors and journalists accused of being Ethiopian spies.
“It was a conscious decision from the government not to hold a trial in this case. Anybody who is accused of a crime receives a trial in an Eritrean court. But this is a special case due to the serious nature of the crime,” presidential aide Yemana Gebrab told newspaper Aftonbladet during a visit to Stockholm.
According to Gebrab, the Eritrean government has proof that Dawit Isaak formed part of a group that sought to facilitate an invasion of the country by Ethiopian troops. The president’s advisor added that Eritrea had not presented any evidence to Sweden since it considered Isaak an Eritrean citizen who was bound by the east African country’s laws.
Asked whether Isaak was still alive, Gebrab replied only that “ninety percent of the questions about Eritrea concern this issue.”
Swedish media and rights groups recently called on the EU to halt aid to Eritrea until Isaak and other prisoners are released from a “death camp” near Asmara.
“The EU’s aid to Eritrea must gradually be halted,” said the heads of the Swedish chapters of rights groups like Reporters Without Borders and PEN, along with journalist and publishing associations in a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day.
No aid should be given to Asmara “until the Eraeiro death camp is closed, its prisoners are given medical care … and released or given an open trial on the ‘crimes’ they are suspected of,” they wrote in an opinion piece in the Dagens Nyheter daily.
According to the piece, the EU’s total aid package to Eritrea in coming years totals $413 million.
Their appeal came amid new reports on harsh conditions at the high-security Eraeiro secret prison near Asmara, where Isaak and a number of other reporters and opposition politicians are reportedly being held.
A number of demonstrations were planned across Sweden Monday calling for the release of the reporter, now 45.
“The prisoners are dying one by one. How long will it take before the world reacts and puts pressure on Eritrea to release the political prisoners?” Isaak’s brother Esayas told the TT news agency.
In April, the first information in years pinpointing Isaak’s whereabouts and describing the conditions of his detention emerged in Sweden, before new accounts from a former guard at the Eraeiro prison surfaced in early May.
Isaak “complains all the time, asking for ‘medicine, medicine,’ and all the time asking for help from a doctor … I think he has mental problems,” ex-guard Eyob Bahta Habtemariam told the Expressen daily.
Habtemariam, in hiding in Ethiopia, said he had last seen Isaak on January 5th, right before he himself fled from Eritrea.
He said Isaak was held handcuffed nearly around the clock in solitary confinement in a windowless cell measuring only 12 square metres at the secret prison, some 50 kilometres from Asmara.
The prisoners there, which include former government ministers opposed to President Isaias Afeworki, were not tortured, but according to Habtemariam, the suffocating heat and isolation “was worse than torture”.
“When I started working (at the prison) nine years ago, there were 35 prisoners. Fifteen of them are dead today,” he told Expressen, adding that three of the dead had killed themselves.
“There is a risk (Isaak) will kill himself,” Habtemariam insisted.