4. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners

"Robel Goniche, a young man from Asmara [deported from Malta(17) and detained at Adi Abeto prison] was shot at the edge of the compound trying to escape and later died. All 27 who tried to escape were badly beaten, flat on the ground, until some were bleeding on the head with teeth and lips cut. One had an arm broken, which never healed straight, and another had his leg cut with a bayonet." Former Adi Abeto detainee deported with him from Malta.

"Ermias [detained in Dahlak Kebir island, a returnee from Germany] escaped twice. After four days free in his second escape attempt he was caught trying to get a boat out of the island. 10 guards surrounded him and two other captured escapees, including Habtom Tekleab, an ex-Malta deportee. They beat them in front of us until they were vomiting blood. They tied them in ‘helicopter’ method for 55 days outside in the heat. Ermias’ skin colour changed, his body swelled and he couldn’t walk. For the first two days he was refused food, but the prisoners fed him. I don't know if he is still alive." Former Dahlak Kebir island detainee.

Amnesty International has received new and consistent reports of the widespread and systematic use of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, particularly by the military against national service conscripts. Torture is used as a standard form of military punishment. Prisoners are commonly beaten but the special and principle torture method is "tying". This was previously used by the EPLF as a punishment within its own forces during the liberation struggle and has been extended since independence. Some of these torture methods are similar to those used by the Ethiopian security forces against suspected supporters of the Eritrean liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Amnesty International has documented torture and ill-treatment of prisoners through interviewing released or escaped prisoners, though it cannot reveal their names due to fears of reprisals against them, even outside Eritrea, or against their families inside Eritrea. More information is beginning to emerge despite the government's secrecy, intimidation, security control and restriction of investigative access to the country. The secrecy in which political prisoners are detained, to the extent that virtually all are detained incommunicado and have effectively "disappeared", makes them particularly vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment, and at severe risk to their physical integrity or even their lives. Medical treatment for torture injuries or illnesses caused or exacerbated by prison conditions is not provided in any of these places of detention beyond the most minimal medication dispensed by medical assistants. Referrals to hospital are difficult to obtain, long-delayed and rarely result in satisfactory treatment.

Torture methods

The most commonly described torture method is tying with rope, and the most common form is nicknamed "the helicopter". It can take different forms and other forms of tying also have different names.

"The helicopter": the victim is tied with a rope by hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the hot sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped of upper garments. This is a punishment allocated for a particular number of days, the maximum reported being 55 days in the Dahlak Kebir island prison, but it is more often one or two weeks. The prisoner is tied in this position 24 hours a day, except for two or three short breaks for meals and toilet functions.

"Otto" (Italian for "eight"): the victim is tied with hands behind the back and left face down on the ground, but without the legs tied.

"Jesus Christ": the victim is stripped to the waist, wrists tied, and standing on a block with hands tied to a tree branch; the block is removed, leaving the victim suspended with the feet just off the ground in a crucifix-like posture. Beatings are inflicted on the bare back. This is said to be an extremely severe torture, restricted to only 10-15 minutes to avoid serious lasting injury. This method was first reported from Adi Abeto prison in 2003.

"Ferro" (Italian for "iron"): the wrists are bound behind the back with metal handcuffs while the victim lies on the ground face down and is beaten with sticks or whipped with an electric wire on the back and buttocks.

"Torch" or "Number eight": inside a special torture room, the victim is tied up by wrists behind the back and with the feet bound; a stick is placed under the knees and supported on a framework on both sides horizontally, and the body is turned upside down with the feet exposed. The soles of the feet are beaten with sticks or whipped. (This was a common punishment in Ethiopia and pre-independence Eritrea under the Dergue.)

Torture used in interrogations of political prisoners held in security prisons has allegedly also included electric shocks and sexual torture – a coca-cola bottle filled with water and tied to the testicles.

Atrocious prison conditions

"In July 2003 we were taken to Dahlak Kebir island, 130 in a truck, lying on top of one another, then on to a boat to the island. Torture continued there for some prisoners – ‘helicopter’ and ‘Jesus Christ’. We did hard labour – building houses, carrying goods off boats, cleaning soldiers’ quarters, from about 8am to 2pm each day. I was accused of spying for Ethiopia [because of being of part-Ethiopian origin] and was tortured by ‘ferro’ method for a week." Former detainee on Dahlak Kebir island.

"The food was very poor and looked like washing-up water. It consisted of half-cooked bread, lentils, and half-cooked unsalted cabbage, in very small quantities. It was placed in a communal bowl in our cell where we had to eat by hand – about six spoonfuls’ amount each for 26 prisoners. We were given half a cup of tea in the morning, and two meals a day at noon and 4pm. We had tap water to drink, but not enough. There was an open toilet in the cell. We could only wash once in two weeks. We slept on the floor, which was often damp, with two thin blankets. Many of us were suffering from stress. I had arthritis, like many other prisoners. After complaining for a long time I was finally taken to hospital for tests but only given aspirin. The elderly prisoners with us - some of them over 80 years old, such as Suleiman Musa Haji and Sunabera Mohamed Demena - were all in very poor health." Former detainee in Wenjel Mermera prison in Asmara, early 2004.

"After seven months in Dahlak Kebir island, in July 2003 we were taken to the mainland in small groups and taken to different prisons. I was sent to Haddis Ma’askar. We were kept in handcuffs. I was held in a 2x2 metre underground cell holding myself and another prisoner. It was very hot, with no light and we had no shoes. There were about 1,000 prisoners there, some in big cells holding 200. The building was completely underground, fairly recently built. Prisoners were there for different offences – deserting from the army, spying for Ethiopia, etc. We were occasionally taken to work – fetching firewood, for example. We had to perform toilet functions in the fields around. Other prisoners were told we were ‘Jihad’ (armed Islamists) and they did not know we had come from Malta. I escaped with another prisoner during a toilet break and reached the Sudan border after three days." Former detainee in Haddis Ma’askar army prison near Sawa, ex-Malta deportee.

Political prisoners are held in numerous built or make-shift prisons throughout the country, mostly secret with access prohibited and not officially designated as prisons. Many of these prisons are underground. They are under the control of the military or the internal security service, including at the main Sawa army base. Some political prisoners are held incommunicado in secret security sections of official police stations or of officially-designated prisons (such as in Sembel prison in Asmara). In contrast, prisoners for suspected ordinary crimes in official civilian prisons and police stations are normally allowed family visits and food, and their conditions broadly conform to international standards.

Members of the armed forces and national service conscripts are held in military prisons, including custodial "rehabilitation centres" in army units. One of the most frequently-named prisons holding recently-arrested political prisoners is Adi Abeto prison near Asmara. This is used for conscripts, returned asylum seekers, and members of minority churches.

The security service is also said to control many secret "safe houses" in Asmara and other towns which are used for short-term detention and interrogation.

Metal shipping containers, brought from Assab and Massawa ports and used elsewhere for ordinary purposes such as for storage or even as shops, offices or homes, are now widely used to accommodate the expanding number of prisoners and also for punishment purposes. They have been reported at Sawa military training centre (where 57 religious prisoners were held in containers in mid-2003), Adi Abeto prison, Dahlak Kebir prison, Mai Serwa, Alla near Decamare, Mai Edaga near Decamhare, Mai Temenei in Asmara, Tehadasso army prison, and other prisons.