Prisoner of Conscience Since 2001 – Why has Sweden not managed to bring Dawit Isaak home?

A week after filing a crime against humanity complaint for Dawit Isaak, and as the Eritrean-Swedish journalist celebrates his 56th birthday in detention today 27 October, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes a report on the lack of Swedish efforts to free the journalist.

During his almost two decades of captivity, Swedish diplomats have been denied access to the Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak. Since 2005, no independent party has been allowed to meet him and confirm that he is still alive. It is uncertain whether Dawit Isaak has even been told what he is being accused of - he has never been given a chance to defend himself before a court of law.

Sweden has an obligation to try all available legal and diplomatic means to bring its national home. Yet, the Swedish MFA’s first reaction to the news that a then 36-year-old Swedish citizen and father of three named Dawit Isaak had been arrested in Eritrea was one of disinterest.

Since then – as RSF Sweden and other organizations pressured the Swedish government to act – Dawit Isaak’s case has been made a priority. But a new report by RSF Sweden, launched on Dawit Isaak’s birthday on the 27th of October, uncovers a lack of effort on the Swedish part.

The report, entitled Prisoner of Conscience Since 2001 – Why has Sweden not managed to bring Dawit Isaak home?, examines what has and has not been done to secure his release. “Other countries have been more robust both in statements and measures taken against the Eritrean regime, even though it is in fact Sweden that has a prisoner of conscience in Eritrea”, says Björn Tunbäck, board member of RSF Sweden, in it.

Eritrean officials have made a habit out of occasionally giving the Swedish MFA false hopes that Dawit Isaak is to be released, which has forced Swedish officials to a precarious balancing act.

Wary of jeopardizing Dawit Isaak’s freedom, Sweden has essentially been made to dance to Eritrea’s tune. The report concludes that Eritrea, in several respects, has benefitted both politically and financially from keeping Dawit Isaak imprisoned.

For example:

  • Sweden has repeatedly refrained from making demands regarding Dawit Isaak when the EU made decisions on development aid to Eritrea.
  • Twice, the Swedish Prosecutor-General, in accordance with the expressed wishes of the MFA, has decided against launching criminal investigations against Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki.
  • The MFA has also advised the Swedish development agency Sida against providing financial support to Radio Erena, Eritrea’s only independent radio station which broadcasts from France.
  • Unlike other countries, Sweden has not heeded the UN’s call to curb the Eritrean regime’s tax collection from Eritreans residing abroad.
  • In the UN Security Council, Sweden has worked to have sanctions against Eritrea lifted.

Dawit Isaak has been imprisoned for almost 20 years, a case which sparked great public interest. Yet, documents relating to the issue are classified and the MFA is reluctant to comment on ongoing efforts. To make things happen, on 21 October RSF filed a complaint with the Swedish Prosecution accusing the Eritrean president of crimes against humanity.

RSF Sweden calls for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate the MFA’s efforts for Dawit Isaak, which would be able to answer the question whether Sweden has fulfilled its legal obligation towards its imprisoned citizen – and also make recommendations on what further steps are necessary in order to finally bring Dawit Isaak home.

We welcome the proposal for a parliamentary inquiry which was recently presented to the Swedish Parliament and call on all MPs to support it. We also urge the European Commission to consider the resolution about tougher measures against Eritrea that the European Parliament has adopted. Enough is enough”, says RSF Sweden president Erik Halkjaer.

Eritrea is ranked 178th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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