I read the interview with Dawit Isaak’s children, Bethlehem and Yorun, in Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) on Wednesday morning, before my first cup of coffee, and I certainly did not need any caffeine after that.
The deep frustration, anger and desperation they expressed at the apparent futility of the highly public campaign to save their father virtually jumped off the page.
Their plea definitely struck a deep chord, especially the charge that all the well intentioned efforts to publicize Dawit’s plight and to press the Eritrean government on his behalf are in fact not helping but may be diminishing the chance of his release.
It is fully understandable that Behtlehem and Yorun Isaak feel that both their father and the cause of his fate have been hijacked by by activists and journalists (such as myself) and that they urgently wish to claim him back.
Dawit’s children have every reason to be upset and to feel deeply frustrated. But I would ask them to consider just a few issues before they dismiss all the steps taken on their father’s behalf as irrelevant or useless.
For one, the campaign for Dawit Isaak went public only after years of patient waiting to see if any of the contacts behind the scenes, the efforts of so-called ‘quiet diplomacy’, would bear fruit.
As several commentators have pointed out, numerous other Eritrean government critics were arrested in 2001 together with Dawit Isaak, for whom no public campaign was launched. They have remained jailed or have died since that time, without any indication that their families were close to securing their release.
Secondly, much of the public criticism has been directed against the failure of the Swedish government to force the Eritrean government into some kind of dialogue, however basic, that would bring about a positive resolution of the case.
Dawit Isaak is, after all, a full Swedish citizen and as such he should receive the full thrust of all possible governmental and legal action on his behalf. That effort appeared somewhat flagging at times and all questions about what exactly the Swedish government has or has not done to win Dawit’s freedom have not been satisfactorily answered.
Also, Eritrea formally grants its citizens the right of “habeas corpus” – the right to appear in person in a court of law, to hear any charges filed against one’s person – in its interim constitution.
Should this right not be claimed by a man jailed by Eritrean authorities for more than ten years?
And yes, it may well be that there is such a thing as pushing Eritrean government too far into a corner.
As Bethlehem Isaak pointed out in her interview with Sveriges Radio (SR), the constant fingerpointing at Eritrean leader Esayas Afewerki as “Dictator, Dictator” may be counterproductive.
Undoubtedly, Afewerki must still retain a sense that there is way to move forward, that allows for an opening to end Dawit’s imprisonment.
If the family feels that it has evidence of such signals from the Eritrean government, then it is vitally important to explore all possibilities to pursue these contacts further. However, as Bethlehem stated quite clearly in that same interview, it does not appear that any such opening currently exists.
Finally, while comparisons do not always work and are often imperfect, history and experience can offer helpful analogies.
It is a fact that public attention in human rights cases matters, that it can bring change, even in seemingly hopeless situations.
One example is Myanmar (Burma) where dissident Aung San Suu Kyi’s lonely fight to oppose the ruling Junta of generals finally came to an end in late 2010, after more than fifteen years under strict house arrest.
The Burmese government appears to finally realise that it cannot continue to exist in isolation and as a result recently decided to free more than 250 dissidents who had languished in jail for years.
Eritrea will sooner or later discover that despite valuable resources and important friends, it cannot secure its future by shutting out most of the world. Similarly, as Eritreans grow more prosperous, they will begin to ask the very same questions Dawit and his colleagues raised when they were arrested.
This brings us to another important point, namely the question how would Dawit Isaak have handled such a case as his?
It is obviously impossible to answer, but one thing seems clear: Dawit was not one to remain silent in the face of oppression. He felt so strongly about freedom of speech and basic human rights that he left his family behind in Sweden to return to Eritrea to ensure a better future for his loved ones and all Eritrean people.
As he wrote in ‘Setit’, the newspaper he co-founded, in 2001: “People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they cannot tolerate the absence of good administration and justice.”
He did not believe that change would come on its own, but instead needed to be given a strong, public (!) voice to grow.
In spite of all the terrible difficulties and different points of view, one thing is certain: Dawit Isaak would be so proud of his children who stand up for him in the way they feel they must do.
Bethlehem and Yorun say that their father belongs to them and that they want to be in charge of handling his case.
That is their right and their privilege, but I hope they will recognize that Dawit’s cause was never so strictly limited and that the focused public activism on their father’s behalf may yet yield the result that must seem so remote at the moment – that Dawit Isaak finally comes home again.
Susanne Berger is a US-based German historian heavily involved in research into the life of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who helped prevent the arrests of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.