Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday that Eritrea’s government was turning the Red Sea state into a “giant” prison with underground cells and metal shipping containers awaiting any dissenters.
The New York-based group said that Eritrea’s “extensive” use of torture, illegal jailing and indefinite military conscription was creating a human rights crisis there.
“Many if not most political prisoners and those detained for trying to flee the country or for practising illegal religions are held incommunicado in appalling conditions, often underground or in metal shipping containers,” the group said.
Reuters says Asmara denies reports from foreign-based rights groups and accuses them of being pawns of western powers bent on undermining Eritrea’s sovereignty.
The Red Sea state accuses world powers of hypocrisy and of bullying other nations over violations that these western nations, themselves, commit.
Rights groups have accused Asmara over the years of becoming increasingly repressive and authoritarian following a 2001 crackdown that saw hundreds rounded up.
Eritrean officials were not immediately available for comment on the report.
HRW — in report entitled “Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea” — said Asmara’s national service programme was itself a crime.
Under Eritrean law, any citizen over 18 and under 40 must complete 18 months of military service, but in practise it can be extended indefinitely, rights groups say.
“The only people who don’t go to military service are blind or missing their trigger fingers,” HRW quoted one of 53 refugees interviewed for the report as saying.
Eritrea says it needs to keep large numbers of people in the military, because of its tense stand-off with neighbouring Ethiopia, following the 1998-2000 border war.
Eritrea restricts exit visas and passports of military-eligible men and women under 50 and 47 respectively.
The report — taken from interviews in Djibouti, Italy and the United Kingdom, but with no official on-the-ground reporting inside the nation — said Eritreans trying to flee risked jail and torture with their families under threat of the same.
The group listed 32 prisons where it said torture was routine. “Beatings were like food in prison — every day,” the group quoted one former conscript as saying.