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
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
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. …