Is it ransom or fine?

An oddity of legal principle in Ethiopia

Thousands of young men and women fled Eritrea and sought asylum in neighbouring countries like The Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia and other countries in Europe and the United States. This even increased after Eritrea's war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 and the open repressive acts of the present government in Eritrea.

Such massive running away of young men and women is part of an effort to avoid conscription or necessary after deserting from the army. According to a proclaimed regulation, national service, compulsory for all men and women aged between 18 and 40, has been extended indefinitely from the original 18 month term instituted in 1994. Besides excessive violations of the human right of draftees, national service consists of military service and labour on army-related construction projects.

The right to conscientious objection to military service is not recognised by the Eritrean authorities. There are frequent round-ups to catch evaders and deserters. Once in the hands of the army, the deserters face indefinite arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment or at times shooting by their commanders. Those are regularly used methods of punishments for draft evasion, desertion and other military offences in the Eritrean defence force. However, none of these measures stopped the desertion and evasion of those men and women from the military.

The latest measure that the government applied is the detention of parents of deserters and evaders as a hostages, and to oblige them to pay money. For a government which depends for its hard currency mainly on remittance, such measures seem to be lucrative. But the hard fact is that most of the evaders have no chance to reach countries where they would be able to send back the ransom money to facilitate the release their detained parents. The majority of the evaders are staying in neighbouring countries like Sudan and Ethiopia, stranded in refugee camps, and are dependant for their livelihood on international humanitarian and refugee assistance organisations.

According to Amnesty International's news service No. 329, the Eritrean government in December 2006 arrested over 500 relatives, mostly parents, of young men and women who have either deserted the army or avoided conscription. Those arrested were the fathers, mothers or other relatives of men or women over the age of 18 who have either failed to report for national service since 1994, failed to attend the compulsory final school year at Sawa military training camp, abandoned their army unit, or left the country illegally. The relatives have been accused of facilitating their evasion of conscription or flight abroad.

The latest arrests have taken place in the villages of Central Region surrounding Asmara, the capital city, in a sweep that started on 6 December 2006. Ever since it instituted its policy of arresting parents for the alleged crimes of their children, the government has been relying on the reports of the local (zoba) offices to conduct its raids.

None of those arrested has been charged with a formal criminal offence or taken to court within the 48 hours stipulated by the Constitution and laws of Eritrea. The authorities have stated that the detainees must either produce the missing conscripts or pay a fine of 50,000 nafka (approximately US$1,200) for each missing child. If they refuse to comply or pay the money, they face indefinite prison terms. Some families could be obliged to pay for two or three of their missing children.

Similarly, in July 2005 several hundred relatives of people who have evaded or deserted from military conscription were detained in the Southern region of Eritrea (Debub Region). They were held incommunicado, many in harsh conditions, and were at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

The Eritrean Antimilitary Initiative has been denouncing the unlawful arrest of parents of the military evaders. Our initiative beliefs that the principle of individual penal responsibility, that no one may be penalised for an act for which they are not personally liable, is a fundamental principle of law which is reflected throughout international human rights law. These arrests of parents of military evaders violate this principle, and specifically the right to liberty and security of the person and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, to which Eritrea is a party.

Abraham G. Mehreteab

Eritrean Antimilitary Initiative

Mühlgasse 13, 60486 Frankfurt/Main, Germany

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