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ERITREA

What would Dawit Isaak have done?

While the frustration expressed recently by the children of imprisoned Swedish-Eritrian journalist Dawit Isaak is understandable, it's important to consider how Isaak would handle a case such as his, argues historian Susanne Berger.

What would Dawit Isaak have done?

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.

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ERITREA

Swedish rights group reports Eritrea to police for ‘torture and kidnapping’

Sweden's chapter of Reporters Without Borders has filed a complaint accusing Eritrea's regime of human rights abuses over the imprisonment of Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak in 2001.

Swedish rights group reports Eritrea to police for 'torture and kidnapping'
A sign from a September 2011 demonstration for Dawit Isaak's release
The complaint was directed at Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and seven other high ranking political leaders, including Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed.
   
Handed over to Swedish police by RSF and Isaak's brother, the complaint accused them of “crimes against humanity, enforced disappearance, torture and kidnapping”.
   
It was also signed by human rights advocates like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
   
On September 23, 2001, Isaak was arrested shortly after the Eritrean newspaper he founded, Setit, published articles demanding political reforms.   
 
According to RSF, he and his colleagues detained at the same time are now the journalists who have been imprisoned the longest in the world.
 
 
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Isaak had fled to Sweden in 1987 during Eritrea's struggle against Ethiopia which eventually led to independence in 1993. He returned in 2001 to help shape the media landscape.
   
RSF ranks Eritrea as the world's third most repressive country when it comes to press freedom, behind North Korea and Turkmenistan.
   
Similar complaints have been filed before, including in 2014 when a new law took effect in Sweden enabling the prosecution for such crimes even if committed elsewhere in the world.
   
The prosecutor-general at the time concluded that while there were grounds to suspect a crime and open an investigation, doing so “would diminish the possibility that Dawit Isaak would be freed.”
   
Bjorn Tunback, coordinator for RSF Sweden's work on the Dawit Isaak case, said they hoped this time would be different after Foreign Minister Ann Linde last year said that despite repeated calls for Isaak's release “no clear changes are yet to be noted in Eritrea.”
   
Tunback said the minister's statements indicated that diplomatic channels had been exhausted.
   
“Diplomacy has its course, but when that doesn't lead anywhere, there is also the legal route,” Tunback told AFP.
   
“The law is there to protect individuals… and that is what we're testing now.”
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