Opinion: What Dawit Isaak needs right now

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Opinion: What Dawit Isaak needs right now

Today marks the 18th anniversary since Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak was arrested and put in an Eritrean prison. Sweden must take a decisive stand and demand his release, writes historian Susanne Berger.


The Swedish government, as well as the European Union, must pursue the rescue of Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak from almost two decades of illegal imprisonment in Eritrea with a clear sense of urgency and an unmistakable message: The Eritrean government's continued crime against Dawit Isaak is a crime against all of Sweden.

When I first wrote about Dawit Isaak in 2009, his situation was already grim. At the time, his family had not seen or heard from him for more than four years. He was being held incommunicado, completely cut off from the outside world. He had not been notified of any formal charges against him and he had not been presented in a court of law -- a serious violation of international human rights norms.

Ten years later, his situation must now be considered desperate. In the intervening years, neither the Swedish government nor Dawit's family and friends, his colleagues or members of his legal team have been able to establish his whereabouts.

Similarly, prominent human rights organizations like the International Red Cross, Amnesty International and Article 19, as well as several local advocacy groups -- most notably, Sweden's chapter of Reporters Without Borders, PEN Sweden and the broad network of the Eritrean exile community -- have also not managed to obtain any reliable information about his physical presence or condition.

A demonstration in support of Dawit Isaak in Stockholm in 2016. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

There have been several individuals who have survived for many years in Eritrean prisons, under harrowing circumstances. One of them is Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, an Eritrean poet and radio journalist, who, together with five other colleagues, was released in 2015, after being imprisoned for six years, including some time in Mai-Sirwa high-security military prison. However, after now eighteen years without a confirmed sign of life, even the most optimistic among Dawit's friends and supporters are losing hope.

Swedish Foreign Ministry officials say that in the absence of convincing proof of Dawit Isaak's death, and basing themselves on a mixture of open as well as confidential sources, they assume that he is alive. If that is indeed so, then the time has come for Swedish authorities  to muster all available resources to rescue him. This need is all the more obvious because it is clear that the Eritrean leadership currently has absolutely no incentive to release Dawit or the other prisoners who were detained along with him in 2001.

At the time, President Afwerki was engaged in a purge of his political opponents who had openly defied him and asked him to respect democratic principles, as anchored in Eritrea's Constitution (which was ratified in 1997, but never implemented).

Afwerki's crackdown against members of his own government, the media, as well as many of his former comrade-in-arms from Eritrea's grueling war of independence (1961-1991) was swift and brutal. Over the course of a few months he eliminated or disappeared dozens of leading members of Eritrea's intelligentsia. He did so with a breathtaking ruthlessness that even today has attracted surprisingly little international attention.

Since then, Afwerki has gone so far to detain children as young as 15 years old, like Ciham Ali Ahmed, a dual US-Eritrean citizen, whose fate remains unknown since her disappearance nearly seven years ago.

After the settlement of a long and bitter border dispute with Ethiopia in July 2018, and the subsequent lifting of UN sanctions, there was some hope that the Eritrean regime would finally loosen its iron grip on domestic affairs. So far, that hope seems to have been misplaced. Isaias Afwerki received part of his military training in Maoist China, during the late 1960s. As a result he appears to believe that lives are expendable and that  he has to answer to no one, least of all meddlesome foreigners. By the same token, if those foreigners give him what he wants, he feels no sense of obligation to reciprocate in kind.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, centre. Photo: AP Photo/Sayyid Azim

Such a mindset is certainly extremely difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, it remains hard to fathom why, after eighteen long years, the Swedish government has not managed to get the point across to the leadership of one of the poorest and weakest countries in the world that illegally detaining and torturing a Swedish citizen will have serious consequences -- for Swedish-Eritrean relations, for Eritrea's relations with Sweden's European partners, for Eritrean diplomats residing and working in Sweden, as well as for the Eritrean leaders' ability to travel and to access the international financial system.

Most importantly, by insisting for nearly two decades on a policy of silent diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiation, even in the absence of any tangible results, Swedish officials failed to make Dawit's plight a cause célèbre. Even today, few Swedes know his name and he has barely any name recognition beyond the international human rights community. As the Swedish historian and political commentator Wilhelm Agrell put it in a blistering critique in 2011, Sweden's handling of the case has resulted in "a cover-up at home and a devastating passivity towards the perpetrators of the crime".

President Afwerki is certainly guilty of many things, but he is far from stupid. Swedish officials have switched tactics in recent years, testing out a new approach of  cultural engagement and 'détente' with Eritrea, as a way of winning potential concessions. However, Afwerki knows exactly that the last thing he wants to do is to release a greatly aged, possibly ill Dawit Isaak, who will share his story of years of inhuman treatment and that of his fellow prisoners with the world. It should be quite clear that Afwerki will only yield on the question of human rights if he feels he has no alternative but to do so, either through pressure applied by his own people or through mounting pressure from the outside.

It is thanks to Dawit's family and a handful of dedicated activists that Dawit has not been forgotten. Throughout his life, he has been a quiet but powerful defender of democratic values, a brave and eloquent man, who has been honored with numerous international awards. He is also a talented playwright and author, as well as a loving husband, father, brother and uncle. Neither the Swedish public nor the Swedish government has ever fully embraced Dawit as one of their own. His family and his friends feel that if his fellow Swedes really got to know him, they would see how much Dawit loved and admired his adopted home, how very "Swedish" he became when he found refuge here during the 1980s and 1990s.

One has to wonder how long Dawit can endure the physical and mental strain of his ordeal. It may not be too late, but Swedish diplomats must now seize the moment and convey in the strongest possible terms that the crime the Eritrean regime has committed against Dawit Isaak is a crime against Sweden itself, against every Swedish citizen, and that the Swedish government will not tolerate this fact a moment longer.

Susanne Berger is a historian and the founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70)


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