US-Eritrean Relations Come under Fire over Human Rights ; One Rights Group Is Asking the Government to Free Some 300 Political Prisoners Friday

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When Eritrea marks the 10th anniversary of its independence Friday, Alli Alamin and Kiflom Ghebremichael won't be joining in the celebrations. The two employees of the US Embassy here in the Eritrean capital are imprisoned without charge; US diplomats don't know where they're being held.

The detention of the two men for the past year and a half is part of what human rights groups describe as a wider crackdown on political freedoms that is tarnishing the reputation of a country previously seen as one of Africa's bright stars. More than 300 people - ruling party dissidents, independent journalists, conscientious objectors, civil servants, and ordinary citizens who made one antigovernment comment too many - are languishing in Eritrea's jails, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The private press is shut down, evangelical church groups are banned, free national elections have yet to be held, and the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only legal political party.

The repression - particularly the detention of the two embassy workers - is forcing the Bush administration to weigh US security interests against its desire to be seen as upholding democratic principles. The Pentagon wants to work more closely with Eritrea in the war against terrorism. The country sits at a vital location along the Red Sea in the middle of a region considered a hotbed of terrorist activity. It boasts top-notch military facilities built when it was part of Ethiopia and has shown pro-US leanings, including voicing support for the war in Iraq.

The head of US Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the country separately last year to discuss cooperation, and some US officials say the Pentagon would prefer to put its antiterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa in Eritrea instead of the current location in neighboring Djibouti.

Eritrea wants the same, so much so that it spent $600,000 over the past year on a lobbying firm in an attempt to persuade Washington to use its military facilities.

But critics say the US should not reward Eritrea with closer military cooperation - and the revenue that comes with it - but should put pressure on the government to stop abusing human rights.

"What we would argue is political repression fuels terrorism," says Tom Malinowski, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "There's a big danger that a closer ,less critical relationship with Eritrea might reinforce the policies in that country that potentially fuel violence and terrorism."

Here in Eritrea, it's hard to find anyone willing to speak on the record against the government. "There is no democracy here," says a security guard at Asmara airport, after looking around to make sure no one else can hear. …