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.

Opinion: What Dawit Isaak needs right now
Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001. Photo:

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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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.