Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment
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,
http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_cat39.htm (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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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, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR64/003/2004 (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.
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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
102 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 16, 2008.
103 Human Rights Watch interview with former conscript, Djibouti, September 17, 2008.
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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