Eritrean torture blackmail trial opens in Stockholm

Two men charged with blackmailing an Eritrean woman in Sweden faced a Stockholm courtroom on Wednesday, accused of demanding money from the woman to prevent the torture and eventual murder of a man in Egypt.

Eritrean torture blackmail trial opens in Stockholm

The two men, 21 and 18, are Swedish nationals of Middle Eastern descent, the TT news agency reported.

Both denied the crimes, however the prosecutor at the Solna District Court pointed to mobile phone text messages and telephone calls that could incriminate them. The pair are facing charges of aggravated attempted extortion for their role in a scheme that affects thousands of members of the Eritrean diaspora around the world, including Sweden.

While Eritreans in Sweden are often targeted by kidnappers, what was unusual about this case was that the accomplices of the kidnappers were in Sweden, according to the indictment.

The trial is thought to be the first time anyone involved with such torture-blackmail plots has been put on trial in the western world.

The kidnappers demanded that a Swedish-Eritrean woman pay them $33,000. If she failed to come up with the money, they threatened to kill a man who was a relative of the woman who lived in Egypt and “remove his organs from his body”. The man later died following the torture.

The lawyer of the younger of the two suspects stated that his client “denies the offense, but that he tried to persuade the plaintiff to pay the money, but not in the form of coercion.”

Chief prosecutor Krister Peterson showed the court telephone conversations between the two men and the woman who was being blackmailed. Among the exchanges, the 21-year-old man warned the woman to “forget the whole thing” and to instead “use the money for the funeral”.

When the woman asked to see a picture of the kidnapped man, the 18-year-old told his accomplice to: “Send a picture of him with a beaten face (…) otherwise she won’t send the money.”

At another moment when the the woman appeared to be threatened, the 21-year-old said “Quiet! Don’t speak on the telephone!”

The interpretation of the conversation is critical to the case, with the lawyer of the 21-year-old stating that his client knew nothing of the kidnapping, but instead believed that the situation to be about a “harmless payment”.

Eritreans living in Sweden are routinely targeted by kidnappers who blackmail them into paying for the freedom of relatives and fellow nationals.

Pressure is mounting on the Swedish government to act to intervene in the situation which is proving to be a very lucrative trade in human beings in the region.

Thousands of Eritreans are thought to have been tortured and killed in Bedouin camps in the Sinai peninsula and several Swedish-Eritreans have been blackmailed for ransoms running into thousands of dollars.

TT/The Local/og

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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.
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.”