The only Swedish citizen currently considered a prisoner of conscience was arrested on September 23, 2001, shortly after the Eritrean newspaper he founded, Setit, published articles demanding political reforms.
Isaak had fled to Sweden in 1987 during Eritrea’s war of succession from Ethiopia but returned in 2001 to help shape the media landscape in his recently independent homeland.
“I want to be where things are happening… I am a journalist and I want to work as one,” he had told concerned friends in Sweden before going back.
On the day of his arrest, he reportedly thought he would only be taken in for questioning, but soon found that he and a dozen other newspaper owners, editors and journalists were accused of being Ethiopian spies and thrown
Sweden and the European Union, along with numerous rights groups and activist organisations, have repeatedly demanded his release, and all major Swedish newspapers have created a joint campaign, each day providing a count of how many days Isaak, now 46, has remained in captivity.
Only last week, the European Parliament demanded that he be set free, describing the human rights situation in Eritrea as “deplorable.”
But after a decade of failed attempts, voices have increasingly been raised to demand a shift from Sweden’s chosen tactic of “silent diplomacy.”
“Silent diplomacy doesn’t work. It’s just naive to think it does,” Isaak’s brother Esayas told the TT news agency Thursday.
Lars Adaktusson, one of Sweden’s most prominent journalists who has become
personally involved in the case, agreed.
“We passed some kind of limit during these 10 years when the strategy should have been changed,” he told AFP adding what is needed is “something more outspoken, with stronger measures, like sanctions and withholding development aid.”
Sweden’s foreign ministry however has repeatedly insisted the current course of quietly working behind the scenes is the only way to deal with Eritrea, which is widely considered one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships and which refuses to recognise the Swedish citizenship Isaak obtained in 1992.
“We will never give up… The government continues to work tirelessly to bring about the release of Dawit Isaak and our commitment remains firm,” Foreign Minister Carl Bildt insisted in a statement Thursday, adding the journalist “should be released immediately.”
He stressed though that “the case involves major difficulties.”
In fact, Isaak’s whereabouts are long unknown and the case did not cause much of a stir in Sweden at first.
But after he managed to sneak out a letter from his cell in early 2005 it kicked off a media storm in the Scandinavian country, and Stockholm sent a diplomat to Asmara to negotiate.
In November 2005, a joyous announcement came out of the blue: Dawit Isaak was free.
He even sent word to his family living in the southwestern Swedish town of Gothenburg that he would “see them soon in Sweden.”
But the joy was short-lived. After breathing the air of freedom for three short days, Isaak was arrested again and Eritrean authorities announced he had only been allowed out for a medical check-up.
Last year Swedish media quoted a former guard saying the diabetic journalist was at the feared high-security Eraeiro secret prison near Asmara and appeared to be in poor health.
The harrowing details provided by the ex-guard, including descriptions of suffocating heat that is “worse than torture,” led journalist Adaktusson to worry Isaak might not even be alive.
“When you hear about the conditions in the prison and what he has endured over the years, it is to be honest difficult to believe in a happy ending to this story,” he said.
Peter Englund, who heads the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Literature Prize, meanwhile told AFP at a recent demonstration in Stockholm for Isaak that Sweden’s failure to make any progress in the case over the past decade was scandalous.
“It is a huge failure for Swedish diplomacy,” he said.