Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment


Excerpts from   State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea



The internationally accepted definition of torture includes any act that involves the

intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering for such purposes as the

extraction of information or a confession or as intimidation or punishment.94 Torture is

routine in Eritrea, both for those detained in prisons and as punishment for those in military



Political prisoners, including journalists or teachers, interviewed by Human Rights Watch

described torture in custody to force them to disclose collaborators, whilst those punished

for their religious beliefs described being tortured in order to renounce their faith. In many

cases former detainees were beaten or tortured in order to extract information, but in other

situations they were simply beaten, tied up, or left to suffer in the sun without any obvious

intention to gather information, simply as punishment.


According to eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch, torture and cruel,

inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment by military officers and commanders are

systematic and “normal.”95 While some form of discipline or punishment for insubordination

or for military crimes such as desertion is usual in a military context, torture is unlawful in

any circumstance. In Eritrea, deaths in custody are common as a result of ill-treatment,

torture, and denial of medical treatment (see below section “Deaths in Custody”). Some

deaths appear to be deliberate killings


91 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscripts, Sicily, Italy, October 2008.

92 Human Rights Watch interview with female former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

93 Human Rights Watch interview with Pentecostal pastor, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

94 See the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment, art. 1, (accessed January 28, 2009). Ethiopia acceded to the Convention against

Torture on April 13, 1994.

95 Human Rights Watch interviews with survivors of Sawa and Wi’a camps, Sicily, Italy, October 24-31, 2008.

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Torture methods


Some of the torture methods are inherited from the Italian period, whilst others are the

methods used by successive Ethiopian governments against suspected Eritrean liberation

fighters during the struggle. All of the torture methods described in this report are drawn

from victim and eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch in 2008, from

individuals who were interviewed independently in different locations, and with different

translators. The methods described below correspond closely to the findings of Amnesty

International in 2004 but this is not a comprehensive list.96


“Helicopter: the victim’s hands and feet are tied together behind the back, sometimes

opposite limbs, i.e. left hand to right foot, and the victim is left face down, often outside in

the hot sun. Detainees described seeing this procedure in most of the prisons mentioned in

this report, in particular in Alla prison.97


“Otto” or eight: Otto, meaning eight in Italian, is a punishment where the hands are tied

together behind the back and victims must lie on their stomachs. This was the most

common torture method noted by former conscripts and detainees, practiced in all the

prisons and in Wi’a and Sawa military camps.

One man interviewed by Human Rights Watch said he was tied for two weeks in the otto

position, even when he slept, because he tried to escape from Wi’a training camp.98 A

soldier deployed to Assab on the coast refused an order and was tortured by being tied in

the otto position: “My leader ordered me to go into the sea and I refused because I have

problems in my left ear. I was punished with otto for four hours. Four hours of otto in Assab

is very bad because it’s so hot,” he said.99


Ferro”: Ferro is an Italian word for iron. The method is similar to otto described above

except that the wrists are bound with handcuffs. The prisoner may also be left in the sun.

96 See Amnesty International, Eritrea: 'You have no right to ask' - Government resists scrutiny on human rights, AI Index: AFR

64/003/2004, May 18, 2004, (accessed February 18, 2009).

97 Human Rights Watch interview with former inmate of Alla, Sicily, Italy, October 25, 2008.

98 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript in Wi’a camp, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

99 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 26, 2008.

31 Human Rights Watch | April 2009



According to a former army officer detained in Alla, ferro was often the punishment for those

suspected of trying to escape from the army. “If someone is suspected of escaping then they

are tied up—just hands or hands and feet, or ferro, he said. “Individuals decide what kind of

punishment is given, there’s no law. They do not have any crimes but [people are punished

because] they hate the military or hate to be a soldier. That is the main reason. Because

everyone in Eritrea hates to be in the army.”100


“Jesus Christ”: As the name suggests, the victim is crucified by being tied with rope to a tree

or a cross and then left to hang, and sometimes beaten while hung.

A conscript who answered back and then struck his commanding officer described being

punished in this way:


My leader [of the unit] ordered me to make charcoal that he wanted to take

home to his family. But I told him, I am in training, this is not my job, so I told

him ‘No.’ He hit me. I said he cannot hit me so I hit him also...That captain

together with other leaders beat me. I still have the scars on my head [he has

visible wide scars on his head and neck]. They tied me in a crucifix style to a

tree, with my hands behind me, for two hours at a stretch, off the ground. We

call it a cross—the hands are tied to wood and you are hanging in the air.

They left me to sleep outside [on the ground] while tied up. It was hot. I got

one cup of water for half a day and bread. They asked me no questions

during punishment, there were many other people punished at the same

time. Every day people were getting different punishments. In front of

everyone, with them all watching.101


“Goma”: Goma is a method involving a radial truck tire. The victim is forced to double up

inside a tire for long periods of time.

A conscript who was caught fleeing towards the border in 2005 and imprisoned in Prima

military camp was suspected of links to the Ethiopian-backed opposition to the Eritrean

government because his mother was Ethiopian. He suffered this form of torture:

...[T]he worst is when they put you inside a tire [goma]. You are tied inside

the circle of the tire and they [beat you with a stick and] ask who is

100 Human Rights Watch interview with former officer, Djibouti, September 18, 2008.

101 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Sicily, Italy, October 28, 2008.

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supporting you [in Asmara], who guided you, what kind of program did you

have in Ethiopia... Another way to make you suffer is to tie the hands behind

your back, sometimes the legs as well. This is called otto, then you are tied to

a tree and punished by hanging from a tree. There are those who died from

punishment but I was fortunate. Twice they punished me by goma. They use

a Ural truck tire. I was rolled in the tire for six hours... Luckily I am not fat. The

fat man suffers even more.102


Mock drowning: Called by many different names around the world, in Eritrea this method of

torture involves submerging a person’s head in water so that s/he believes s/he will drown

and was originally used by the Derg in Eritrea. A man described to Human Rights Watch his experience in Alla military prison of being put in a barrel head first, upside down and forced to answer questions after he had tried to run away from the army four times:


They hit me everywhere in every prison—on the head, on the feet—

sometimes the body swelled. The first time they hit you is when they catch

you—they hit me—and after two months my body became weak. They put me

in a barrel of water, with the head under water and the legs out. They beat

people with electric wire in the barrel of water. After three days when the

inspector came and if you didn’t accept or respond to his questions then

you’d be punished like this. I was interrogated with questions like: ‘Who is

helping you?’; ‘How did you get around without permission?’; ‘How did you

reach the border?’; ‘Who had the master plan?’; ‘Who was your guide?’; ‘Are

you a soldier?’ I was in the barrel five times.103


Beating: Beating is commonplace to the point of “normality” and is often preceded or

followed by other torture methods. Nearly every former detainee interviewed by Human

Rights Watch described regular beatings, often daily, severe, and resulting in lasting

physical damage.

102 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

103 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

33 Human Rights Watch | April 2009

Helen Berhane, a famous Eritrean Christian gospel singer was beaten whilst in detention and warned to renounce her faith. She was eventually released and sought asylum in Denmark but her legs were severely injured as a result of the beatings.104

Another conscript who tried to escape described being beaten by intelligence officials:

“When I was captured they beat me badly. After three months of beatings they started

asking: ‘Whose idea was it to go?’ That was the main reason for the beating. When they are

beating people they divide you into three groups: those they believe, those they don’t

believe, those they are preparing to beat.”105


Another former conscript and detainee told Human Rights Watch he now has problems with

incontinence as a result of the beating he received in detention. He said, “Beatings were like

food in prison—every day.”106


There are myriad ways in which military superiors torture subordinates or try and scare them

from escaping military service. One of the most egregious accounts gathered by Human

Rights Watch concerned unsuccessful deserters from Sawa camp being tied to a corpse. A

witness said: “One had been shot running away, the other two had their hands tied to the

feet of the dead person. They were paraded round the camp in the back of a Toyota pick-up

truck. The intention was for everyone to see.”107


Many political prisoners have suffered the full gamut of torture methods. One government

journalist who was arrested and detained in 2004 because of an article he had written

raising questions of government policy was punished first in a police station in Asmara

before being sent to Dahlak prison—a facility on an island in the Red Sea exclusively for

political prisoners (see Prison Conditions below).  I was questioned in police station 6 in Asmara. There are different types of  interrogation: physical and psychological. The first step is asking questions if  I had a hand in the G-15. Then they change methods, try to get the truth by  force. There is a big fence in the back of the 6th police station, with a tree—

they tie you up, then throw you down on the ground, again and again. They

tie you up in the number eight position. Everybody will taste these kinds of

104 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Helene Berhane, December 19, 2008.

105 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.

106 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.

107 Human Rights Watch interview with former student, London, November 13, 2008.

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punishment, it is normal, like flu... Before I went to Dahlak I was hung up like

Christ for 24 hours. Then after 24 hours I was thrown on the ground and they

put milk and sugar on your face and the flies come and eat your face.108



Source   State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea