It could have been me

Aster and ten others arrested with her have been held without charge since 2001. Their whereabouts a

Aster Fissehatsion is a former director of the ministry of labour and social affairs in Eritrea. She has been imprisoned incommunicado, without charge or trial, since September 2001, and her precise whereabouts are still unknown. She and ten other political dissidents who were arrested at the same time as her are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression.

In the late 1980s I visited Eritrea during the war with Ethiopia and spent time with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. I and others in the British Labour Party consistently supported the EPLF, a beacon of hope with a clear commitment to human rights and democracy. I subsequently wrote a book, Eritrea: Images of War and Peace, and visited the country a number of times. I am now not welcome. Meanwhile, my erstwhile friend Aster is denied her freedom.

Could it be me? Not really. The traditions of debate and discussion in the European Parliament and in the Labour Party are still alive and well. Politicians can, and do, speak out on issues of conscience - a right I exercised in my opposition to renewing Trident, for instance.

Eritrea is different. The country is a one-party state, under the rule of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Demands for democracy have been suppressed and many dissidents detained, accused of links with neighbouring Ethiopia. Private newspapers have been suspended indefinitely since 2001, and independent NGOs are not permitted. Few foreign journalists are allowed in.

Many of the abuses contravene the government's own laws - the constitution contains numerous human rights safeguards - but these, and the very principle of rule of law, are frequently ignored.

After Eritrea secured independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the PFDJ was formed and Aster Fissehatsion worked in various government ministries. She was elected to the Central Committee of the party. In 1996 she was dismissed from her job for criticising the government, but was reinstated in 1999.

Criticism of the PFDJ had grown, as had dissent at the way the president ran both the country and the party. This became public in May 2001, when 15 senior party officials, later known as the G-15, published an open letter to PFDJ members calling on the president to hold internal party meetings, adhere to correct parliamentary and governance procedures, and follow up on promises the PFDJ had made, particularly on judicial reform. Aster was one of the G-15.

Exchange of ideas

In August 2001, the secretary general of the PFDJ Central Office accused the G-15 of attempting to destabilise Eritrea. Their response, published in a newspaper, called on the people to help solve the country's problems and asked the Eritrean government to allow a free exchange of ideas. On the night of 18 September 2001, 11 of the 15 signatories, including Aster Fissehatsion and her former husband, the then vice-president of Eritrea, Mahmoud Ahmed Sheriffo, were arrested.

All 11 have been held without charge or trial ever since, detained in secret, and their whereabouts remain unknown. There are fears that at least two of them may have died in detention as a result of the harsh conditions and denial of medical treatment. Their families live in fear and dare not ask after them. The authorities refuse to divulge any information or reply to questions from Amnesty or the international community.

Free to speak

These are dangerous times in the Horn of Africa, and a draconian and repressive government in Asmara adds to the region's instability. The international community should demand to know where Aster Fissehatsion and the other prisoners are being held and that they should be granted access to their families and medical staff. This situation must not be allowed to continue. They should be released, as they have committed no crime.

As a politician, I am free to speak out according to my principles and values. Speaking out on the most important issues is what politics is about; it is certainly what attracted me to it. And I ask that those of you who agree join me in speaking out for Aster Fissehatsion.

Join the Amnesty appeal for Aster Fissehatsion by logging on to:

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters