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TESTIMONY: Tewelde W. Tekhlegherghis
By Awate Eritrean Human Rights Advocacy Group (EHRAG)
Jun 17, 2004, 04:16 PST

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"He warned me not mention what happened to anyone." 


This is the story of a man who took a leave from his job in the USA to visit Eritrea for his nephew’s wedding and spent more than half of his allotted time in jail.  His alleged crime? Attending meetings of the Eritrean opposition in the United States. 

Name:                     Tewelde Weldehiwet Tekhleghrgis

Place of Birth:           Bet Gabriel, Adi Khwala, Enda Azmatch Uqbit

Nationality:              US citizen of Eritrean Ancestry

Marital Status:          Married.  A father of a 19 month child.

Residence:               Dallas, Texas, USA


This was my third visit to Eritrea.


My first visit was shortly after independence; at the time the government was announcing the names of the martyrs of the liberation struggle.   I lost two brothers in the war of independence, and I was there to console my family during our period of mourning.


My second visit was in 2001 and I was there to seek out traditional medicine for my wife.  I stayed there for four months. I was disappointed with the way the country was being governed, particularly the lack of justice and fairness.  When I returned to the United States, I shared my disappointment with some people. Some of them must have reported this to the Eritrean authorities—because they were waiting for me when I visited for the third time. 


On March 25, 2004, I arrived in Eritrea on a 22-day leave from my work in the USA.   I was there to attend the wedding of the only son of my martyred older brother, Tekhle Weldehiwet. The wedding was important to me because I was keeping a promise that I had made to my nephew that whenever he decided to get married, I would be present at his wedding.  Because he grew up without a father, I had helped to raise him like my own son.  At the wedding, I was to have the role traditionally held by the father. 




Three days before Dagmay Tensae, when we were preparing the “Arki Helefot,” [part of traditional pre-wedding ceremony] three plainclothes security officers arrived at the house and asked a group of people, who were with me, for “menqesaqesi wereqet” [a moving permit; ID.] I showed the men my passport and told them that I was a US citizen.   I told them that the passport with a visa that I got from here [USA] is the only ID that I had.   They told me that they were taking me to the police station.  When I asked why, they told me that they didn't know the reason and were obeying orders. They were just ordered to take me to the police station.


They ordered me to drive the car to the station and explained that they would ride with me. Since the car  I was driving belonged to my in-laws, I asked them if we could walk to the station, which was about a block away.  They ordered me to drive the car. Upon arrival, they locked the car and put handcuffs on my wrists. Then they called a certain Wedi Hagos, who was in charge of the station, and reported that they had brought me.


He approached me and started asking questions: name, place of birth and many other personal details.  I told him that I was born there and went to school until grade five, after which I left for Addis Ababa and, later, for the USA. Then I was asked what brought me there [to Eritrea]. I told them that I had come to attend a wedding. He seemed not believe me and asked me to tell him the truth. I said that I was telling him the truth. When I asked him what the problem was, he told me that he doesn’t know anything and can’t tell me anything. He said that he received two radio messages ordering him to arrest me.




I pleaded with him and begged him to let me be present at my nephew’s wedding and that I was willing to leave my passport with him. I begged him to let me attend the wedding that I came all the way for. I begged to be released on bail or bond until the wedding was concluded. I pleaded on behalf of my martyred brother’s son for whose wedding I had come.   His insensitive reply was: “No, no, no.  Don’t try to blackmail us by ‘martyrs, martyr’s son, etc.’ If need be, we have permission to even shoot the martyr’s son right here.”


I was shocked.   I said, “if you say so, I didn’t know that you were like that.”  But they are like that, and I should have known.  In my first visit to Eritrea in 1991, I had tried to locate my nephew all over. I finally found him in Adi Neamen.  I asked him why didn’t he ask to get a reprieve since he is a son of a martyr.  He replied that they don’t care.  And that is when I had begun pressuring him to get married and made him a promise to be there.


Wedi Hagos repeatedly asked me to tell him everything and I said that I could only repeat what I told him. He then left me and went to his office. Outside, family members were pleading with him to let me go and I don’t know what went on there. 


At about 5:30 PM, a guard carrying a Klashnikov [AK-47], came and pushed me to the car and sat beside me. I was handcuffed. Then, Wedi Hagos carefully put his sunglasses and sat behind the wheel of my in-laws’ car. I was sitting in the middle with the guard sitting on the passenger side.  Wedi Hagos drove us to the Mendefera police station. Throughout the way, I begged him to help me be released just so I can attend the wedding.


Once in Mendefera, he entered an office and came after a while.  He told me that he asked the chief to release me for the wedding and that the chief refused and that I was a prisoner. He told me that I would be kept there for interrogation through the night and, if I was innocent, I would be released the next day to attend the wedding. He then told the guard to take me to the cell.


I asked him whether the car was impounded because it was not my car and should be returned to its owners. He called one of the guards, Wedi Khefela, and instructed him to take me to make a phone call to inform the owners of the car to come and take their car but that I was a prisoner and should be kept in jail. Then Wedi Khefela stripped me of my belongings, belt, wallet and everything and pushed me into the cell and no one came to see me or to tell me why I was arrested. Nobody came to interrogate me during the night, as I had been led to believe. And the guard forgot about me and didn’t come to take me to make a phone call.




The next day, at about 9:30, the guard showed up with another prisoner.   I took the opportunity to ask him if he had forgotten about me since he was told to let me make a phone call. He replied that he had forgotten all about it and took me out in handcuffs to the telephone center to make a call. When I reached there, the guard found someone he knew and was busy exchanging greetings. I took the opportunity to make a call to the US Embassy in Asmara. (* see notes below.)  I gave the Consul my details; he asked me if I wanted him to inform my wife back in the USA. Just after I finished talking to the embassy, the guard overheard me; he came rushing and snatched the phone from my hands and hang up the phone. I asked why he did that; he responded that he had heard me speak in English: I was only supposed to call my in-laws to tell them to come and take the car. I said that I didn’t tell them where the car is. He allowed me to make another call to my in-laws and I made the call. My in laws came and took the car.


I was left in jail for five days and no official came to say anything to me. After five days, a guard informed me that officials from the USA embassy had been to the station asking about me.


Whenever I saw a guard, I would ask them why I was jailed and they would tell me enda Tseteta [the security] are the ones who ordered my arrest and that they don’t know anything.




Then, a middle aged, bespectacled man, whose name I don’t know, came and asked me if I knew why I was jailed. I said that I didn’t. He then asked me who informed the embassy about me being in jail. He threatened me saying that now that your family informed the embassy, your release will be elongated and you will not be able to attend the wedding. I said that the wedding is over and my flight is on Sunday and I need to know why I am there.


He told me that they [the government] know that, in the USA, I participate in meetings of the opposition and that I talk badly about the government and that I wear opposition T-shirt.  That I insult and beat their members and that I contribute money to them (opposition.) I told him that this is not true. He claimed to have a video proof of my activities in the USA. I challenged him to show me the video. He then said that I go to meetings. I replied by saying that I do go to meetings to find out what is happening in Eritrea and to see the views of different people but I never offended anyone and I don’t know of enemies that I might have.


He told me that he has “videos” as a proof and if I don’t accept the accusation, I will be faced with the videos.


He left me there for five more days.  Then he came back and took me to a shade under a tree and asked me the same questions and claimed he had the same evidence. He then took me to someone who he said was the chief of security of the Debub Zone [Southern Province.] The man lectured me at length about martyrdom and about serving one’s country, continuously reminding me that he was handicapped fighting for his country and hectoring me about why I shouldn’t be struggling for the good of my country.


I mentioned that I have lost two of my brothers and I struggle to help raise the son of one of my brothers left behind and that I consider this struggling for one’s country. He didn’t seem to understand.


Finally, he told me that they have interrogated me enough and couldn’t find any proof therefore I was free to leave.




I was angry and I said how do you tell me to go just like that? Why was I jailed in the first place? I am a human being, not sheep. I mentioned to him that the government, in its radio and mass media, raises slogans calling on people to take care of the children of martyrs and when I do that, I am jailed and was not even able to be present at the wedding of my martyred brother’s son! He told me to stop trying to blackmail him by invoking the martyrs.


He started to threaten me by mentioning video proofs and then he said that they only owe me my passport and he dropped my passport in the table and told me to go.


I insisted to face my accuser or be taken to court. He said that he was busy and had to go to a meeting. He told me that if I decided to leave, I should close the door behind me.


He stood up and started to head for the door. He told me “ close the door behind you when you leave” and left. I did just that: I closed the door and went out. I had no other choice and I went out.


I followed him and asked him to give me a letter to the airlines stating that I was delayed by the security and that I was now free so that I will be able to change my flight reservation. He said that he could only write a letter if the airlines refused to change my reservation.


I returned the second day and asked him to write me the letter because the airlines refused to change my reservation. He gave me a letter stating that I was detained and was kept because my issue was not resolved and that it is now resolved and that they recommend that I get assistance in the matter.


When I went to the airlines, I had to pay $230 extra to validate my ticket and get a reservation.




On my departure day, all the family came to the airport to bid me goodbye. I went through the check-in, weighed my luggage, and was waiting at the lounge to board my flight when three plainclothes men arrived and told me that I was wanted. I asked what the reason was and they wouldn’t say. They just led me to an office. There, I met a man who introduced himself as Eyob, “merah ganta’ [platoon leader] who took me through another interrogation, beginning with my name…


Eyob informed me that he had orders to stop me from flying out of the country. He also told me that he was not ordered to arrest me but to stop me from the flight only. It was 1:30 AM. I informed them that I was already detained and released.  But it was to no avail. I also showed him the letter that had been written to explain why I missed my original flight. He told me that he was ordered to stop me from flying out and was not told to arrest me. He ordered me to go and unload my luggage. We went to the airplane and unloaded the luggage.


Now that I was at the airport, and my plane had left, I asked him what I was supposed to do.


He told me that they have my telephone number and that I should go home and wait for a telephone call for instructions. It was 1:30 in the morning.  I didn’t have any cash on me and there were no taxis or buses because everybody had left since there were no more incoming or outgoing flights.  The airport staff who witnessed all were sorry but couldn’t do anything except to offer me a ride to the city when their service bus arrived at 2:30 AM. I took a ride with the airport bus.




The next day, the chief of the airport security, a certain Colonel Zecarias, called and asked me why I was stopped from boarding my plane. I said, “I don’t know.” Colonel Zecarias said that the airport security who stopped me from boarding the plane were told to pass specific information to me but “tSemamat eyom” [they are idiots.]   The specific information, he said, is that it is Commissioner Tesfamariam Tekheste aka, Wedi Bashai, [commissioner of the Eritrean Diaspora Affairs] who send the order to stop me                                      from boarding the plane. He told me that I would not be able to leave without his permission and that I should go to meet him.


I asked Colonel Zecarias where and when I could meet Wedi Bashai.


He said he didn’t have specific address and that I should look for him.  “Ask around and find him,” he told me.


After a long search, I found Wedi Bashai’s office. I dropped my passport at the gate and entered to see him. He confirmed that it is he who prevented me from flying out and that I should be careful. He warned me not mention what happened to anyone. He threatened that if I said something, he will know. He kept saying the eyes of the government are “kndi Ayni Arat” [as many as the holes in a mattress netting] and “our whips reach far places.” He said that he brought me to warn me against any activities of informing others about what had happened to me.


I was angry. I said, “I had to pay money to validate my ticket. I had to be jailed and delayed for no reason.  And you brought me here just to warn me?  Why didn’t you tell me what you are telling me over the phone?”


He said, “This is our country, all of us.  And you are enjoying it because it is your country.” He kept talking about unrelated topics. He pointed to his clothes and told me that it was not bought with his salary; he couldn’t afford it with his salary. It was thanks to presents and gifts from friends and brothers. He talked about how they work without pay. He kept boasting of how he left Germany to come to Eritrea to struggle and that he was a wounded veteran. He pointed to his hand and kept showing me that he is a handicapped.


He kept me in his office for five hours to argue and talk about his clothes, his salary, his income and other issues. He talked about things like that for five hours.  I was threatened, lectured and belittled and humiliated by Wedi Bashai for five hours. Finally, Wedi Bashai told me that I was free to leave.


[Tewelde is now back in the USA and safe with his child and wife.  As a US citizen, he has presented his case to the FBI.  The FBI may not have any jurisdiction over sovereign states; but it certainly has an obligation to investigate vigilante Eritrean individuals and groups in the United States who are conspiring in punishing Americans of Eritrean origin for  practicing their constitutionally-protected right to free association and freedom of expression in the United States.] 



According to Tewelde, the US Councilor in Asmara acted immediately upon receiving the news: embassy staff were in Medefera within two hours. The police station allegedly told the embassy staff that Tewelde was an Eritrean citizen and they were not obliged to tell them anything.  Wedi Abay, who is in charge of Eritrea’s Department of Immigration confirmed to the embassy that they are unaware of any accusations against Tewelde. The embassy officials met with Abraha Kassa (Chief of National Security) who denied he knew anything about Tewelde and, after promising to follow up, didn’t come back with any information. He avoided further calls from the embassy by claiming that he was too busy or in a meeting.  Efforts to reach the president’s office were also unsuccessful. 

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