Scores of political prisoners were reportedly detained without charge or trial. A prisoner of conscience was released. Some 120 officials in the former Ethiopian administration convicted of human rights violations were serving prison sentences imposed after unfair trials. There were allegations that some Ethiopian citizens were detained and ill-treated. The fate of several people who “disappeared” in previous years remained unresolved. Some civilians were reportedly killed unlawfully by both government forces and an armed opposition group.

In May war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia after Eritrean troops occupied an area claimed by Eritrea. Eritrean air strikes against Ethiopia in June killed 48 people, including children, in a school and in other civilian areas in Mekelle and Adigrat towns in Ethiopia's Tigray region. An Ethiopian air attack on Asmara airport killed one person. Further air strikes by both sides were quickly suspended and there was little further fighting until November, when shelling resumed in contested border areas where Eritrea had mobilized troops and national service conscripts. Several hundred soldiers on each side were reportedly killed during fighting in June and a large number of others taken prisoner. More than 40,000 men, women and children of Eritrean origin, most of them Ethiopian citizens, were deported from Ethiopia to Eritrea in harsh conditions (see Ethiopia entry).

In September the Eritrean government allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc) to open an office in Eritrea. The government released 70 prisoners of war and returned them to Ethiopia, but had not allowed the icrc access to remaining prisoners of war by the end of the year. Over 100,000 civilians were displaced in the border areas. International mediation in the conflict, led by the Organization of African Unity, a un Special Envoy and us government envoys, was still continuing at the end of the year.

The government of President Issayas Afewerki and the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice, the only permitted party, faced armed opposition within the country from the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement, which was renamed the Islamic Salvation Movement during the year, and from the Eritrean Liberation Front faction led by Abdallah Idris. Both groups were based in Sudan.

In November Eritrea handed back to Yemen the Red Sea Hanish islands, which it had occupied in 1995, after accepting the findings of an international arbitration tribunal.

By the end of the year Eritrea was the only African country not to have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Prisoner of conscience Ruth Simon, an Eritrean journalist detained without charge or trial since April 1997, was released in December (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

Scores of suspected supporters of armed opposition groups, including some who had been arrested in previous years, were allegedly detained without charge or trial and held in secret places of detention, although these reports were difficult to confirm.

Some 120 officials of the previous Ethiopian administration detained since Eritrea gained independence in 1991, remained in prison. They were serving prison sentences imposed for crimes against humanity after secret trials which fell short of international standards. They were tried without legal representation and were denied the right to appeal against their convictions or sentences.

There were allegations that the Eritrean authorities arbitrarily detained, ill-treated and forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ethiopian citizens. The allegations could not be substantiated, but at least 22,000 Ethiopians returned to Ethiopia, most after losing their jobs or becoming destitute as a result of the hostilities. However, there appeared to have been some cases of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment during the first few weeks of the conflict, and some leaders of the Ethiopian community in Assab were reportedly still held without charge or trial at the end of the year.

The fate or whereabouts of several political opponents of the government who “disappeared” in previous years remained unknown (see previous Amnesty International Reports).

Some civilians were allegedly killed unlawfully by both government forces and members of the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement.

Following the outbreak of war with Ethiopia in May, Amnesty International appealed to the Eritrean government to respect the Geneva Conventions, not to target civilians, and to allow the icrc access to prisoners of war. It also investigated the allegations of arrests, ill-treatment and deportation of Ethiopian nationals. At the end of the year an Amnesty International delegation was preparing to visit Eritrea to examine human rights issues in the conflict with Ethiopia.

Amnesty International called for all detained political opponents to be promptly and fairly tried and for Ruth Simon to be freed. The organization also repeated its calls for an independent inquiry into “disappearances” of political prisoners in 1991 and 1992 and raised concerns about allegations of mass arrests, ill-treatment and deportation of Ethiopian nationals.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This report is an extract from the Amnesty International Report 1998 and is copyright (c) Amnesty International Publications. You may not alter this information, repost or sell it without the permission of Amnesty International. The complete edition of the Report, covering more than 140 countries and territories,is published in several languages and is available from Amnesty International sections or, in case of difficulty, from the International Secretariat. Additional places where you can purchase copies of the Annual Report can be found here.

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