The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

Malta Strikes dubious friendship with Eritrean regime

Malta Independent Sunday, 28 December 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Malta struck a somewhat dubious friendship this week with Eritrea – a country with no recognisable rule of law or respect for human rights, known for torturing dissidents, holding thousands of prisoners of conscience incommunicado, outlawing opposition parties, and imprisoning members of religious groups, journalists and citizens attempting to evade forced military conscription.

The country has also been censored on numerous occasions by both the United Kingdom and the United States over arbitrary detentions and gross human rights violations by the government, military and police.

A rather long-winded press release from the government this week announced Malta had established diplomatic relations with Eritrea, citing that the two countries “looked forward to a closer and fruitful relationship”.

The terms of such a friendship however, are as dubious as their past relationship.

Malta’s relationship with the dictatorial regime stretches back at least as far as 2002, when Malta forcibly returned 223 irregular migrants to Eritrea, despite pleas and warnings from organisations such as the UNHCR and Amnesty International, in what could be considered Malta’s worst ever transgression of fundamental human rights.

While Malta had insisted that the returnees faced no danger from the Eritrean regime, the facts speak otherwise. Most of the group, excluding the women and children, have not been heard from since, with the exception of the accounts provided by a handful of escapees who have given chilling accounts of their treatment at the hands of the Eritrean authorities on their return. Several documented accounts have revealed the horrific fates the so-called ‘ex-Malta deportees’ met on their return to Eritrea.

Funnily enough, it was then Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg who had overseen the forced returns to Eritrea in 2002 and who had pledged for the deportees’ safety upon return, and it was the same individual, now Malta’s foreign affairs minister, who has overseen the setting up of diplomatic relations between the two countries this week.

As for the countries’ future relationship, both the Maltese and Eritrean ambassadors to the United Nations who signed the agreement this week spoke of possible maritime and educational links, as well as the issue of illegal immigration.

Following migrants from neighbouring Somalia, Eritreans comprise the second-largest group of migrants being hosted by Malta – hundreds of people that Malta would, quite understandably, have a serious interest in returning.

Eritrea would, according to the volumes of evidence documenting the Horn of Africa State’s human rights violations, also have an interest in seeing its citizens repatriated.

The country – which has been gripped in a 10-year border conflict with Ethiopia following a 30-year war for independence – is engaged in supporting anti-government Somali forces and is also involved in the Sudanese civil conflicts – does not take kindly to those seeking to evade its strictly implemented compulsory military service, and seeks to make examples of those caught, as revealed in the horrific accounts of the ‘ex-Malta deportees’ and scores of other documented cases.

It is sincerely hoped that the establishment of diplomatic relations with the regime is not intended to lend the Eritrean government a shroud of respectability, under which more Eritreans could be repatriated from Malta only to face the same fate as those returned in 2002.

While the list is far too extensive for reproduction here, among the more recent human rights violations committed by the Eritrean regime, according to groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was the imprisonment of over 2,000 religious prisoners of conscience, mostly of Protestant denominations, among which were women and children, have been detained incommunicado for over three years. Members of evangelical groups have been tortured to make them abandon their faith.

According to both AI and HRW, religious persecution and the ill-treatment of those caught evading military conscription are both on the increase, while torture is systematically practised by the police and military.

Another nationwide sweep yielded another 100 Christian men, women and children, who were apprehended in a campaign of mass arrests between late November and 12 December. The crackdown involved Christians of all denominations, who have been reportedly transferred to military facilities where they are being physically abused.

Eritrea is not an electoral democracy and dissent against the government is not allowed, leading to the secret imprisonment of hundreds of government critics – including 11 former government ministers. Independent or private news and media outlets are banned and a group of 13 journalists arrested in 2001 remain detained incommunicado without charge or trial.

The UNHCR had issued guidelines, which are still in force, that rejected Eritrean asylum seekers should not be returned to Eritrea on account of the country’s serious human rights situation.

For background and the accounts of the ‘ex-Malta deportees’, see www.independent.com.mt/news.asp?newsitemid=43604 and www. independent.com.mt/news.

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