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Special Reports Last Updated: Apr 9th, 2010 - 01:11:54

Dawit Issak, Sweden�s cause celebre: Hero or zero?
By Thomas C. Mountain
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 9, 2010, 00:44

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ASMARA, Eritrea -- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders . . . Bruce Springsteen? All calling for the release of one Dawit Issak, in prison since 2001, whom they describe as a political prisoner in one of the smallest, newest, most environmentally challenged countries in the world, Eritrea.

Dawit Issak is an Eritrean with dual Swedish citizenry who is in prison in Eritrea, according to Dawit�s supporters in Sweden and around the world, for calling for democracy in Eritrea.

The Eritrean government says he is in prison for violating Eritrea�s National Security laws, ie., for, amongst other things, taking money from the CIA station chief in Asmara, Eritrea, for activities that attempted to destabilize the country. 

As one of the very few Western journalists who have actually met Dawit Issak, has followed his story for nine years now and who lives in Eritrea, I hope this article might provide some accurate background to this controversy.

I first heard of Dawit Issak in the fall of 2000 when he was listed as a �journalist� by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in a press release claiming he was arrested, along with a number of other �journalists,� by the Eritrean authorities for calling for democracy in Eritrea in what was termed the �free press� in Eritrea. This press release was widely circulated by human rights groups and was supported by various media and journalist organizations internationally. One major organization, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) released a condemnation of Eritrea for arresting Dawit et al based on this press release by RSF.

To supply some perspective to the timing of the matter, in June of 2000, the Ethiopian army succeeded in invading Eritrea, causing, according to the Red Cross, some 1.4 million Eritrean refugees (over one-third of the population), destroying 80 percent of Eritrea�s agricultural production and killing and wounding many tens of thousands of Eritreans defending their country. The entire Eritrean society was mobilized to defeat this invasion, including a compulsory, nationwide national service military induction program.

The Eritrean government claimed that Dawit Issak, along with a number of others listed in the RSF press release, were detained for going absent with out leave (AWOL) from their military units and were not in prison but had been returned to their military commands.

I, amongst others, contacted the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to find out their reaction to the claims made by the Eritrean authorities disputing the reasons for Dawit Isaak and the others� detention and in short order received, much to my astonishment, a copy of a retraction and apology by the WAN on this matter -- something I have yet to find another example of in the history of the WAN. The statement sent to me by the WAN�s president specifically recognized Eritrea�s right to require national service by its citizens and blamed RSF for providing WAN with inaccurate information on this matter.

This all took place in the fall of 2000, a few short months after the Ethiopian invasion of Eritrea and a year before Dawit Issak would once again be featured in press releases by RSF and various human rights and journalist groups.

In July of 2001, I had an opportunity to actually meet Dawit Issak in Asmara in the lobby of the Hamasien Hotel. Previous to this meeting, I had seen copies of what I would call a �newsletter,� published by Dawit Issak, being sold by newspaper vendors on Asmara�s streets. This publication was usually no more than four to six pages and contained mainly commentary and opinion pieces, little of what i would call �news stories.� The vendors we talked to said they usually sold two or three, maybe four copies of each issue and we didn�t find any distribution outside the main streets in central Asmara. The publications we saw, which included Dawit Issaks, all were pretty much the same in size and style. They contained very little if any advertising and we wondered how, after up to seven years of publishing these papers, they were able to pay for their salaries, rent and publishing costs.

When I was introduced to Dawit Issac, one of the first questions I asked him was how was he managing to survive based on the limited distribution and size of his publication. His response was to stand up and walk away, causing me to wonder at his rudeness, for Eritreans in general are very polite people and to not even excuse oneself is quite unusual, to say the least.

At the time I was in the midst of investigating the Ethiopian invasion of Eritrea and had little time to follow up on what was going on regarding what came to be known as the �free press� in Eritrea.

I next heard about Dawit Issak a few months later, a few days after the WTC attack on September 11, 2001, when I was forwarded a series of press releases, containing almost identical wording, from, amongst other organizations, RSF, condemning the arrest of Dawit Issak, along with other �journalists� and government officials, by the Eritrean authorities, for calling for �democracy in Eritrea.�

It quickly became apparent that a well planned and coordinated campaign was being launched internationally to pressure the Eritrean government to release all those it had taken into custody. This campaign was almost identical to that which had been aborted by the WAN retraction the previous year and immediately gained my full attention.

Thus began a long attempt to find out what was actually going on regarding the international outcry over the imprisonment of Dawit Issak. In the course of trying to contact the various newspaper, journalist and human rights groups to ask them a few questions on this matter, I was able to contact the spokesperson for the committee in Sweden set up to support Dawit Issak.

This spokesperson confirmed much of what many of my sources inside Eritrea had said. First, that Dawit Issak had never been a journalist before returning to Eritrea after independence in 1991. He had no background in journalism and had never had an article published anywhere outside of Eritrea.

Second, when I asked if the Swedish support group for Dawit Issak could provide me with any evidence that he was arrested for calling for �democracy in Eritrea,� did they actually have copies of Dawits papers that contained such calls, the spokesperson admitted that they didn�t have anything Dawit had actually published in Eritrea. They were unaware of the controversy that included Dawit Issak the previous year and had not heard of the retraction and apology issued by the WAN on this issue.

Apparently, they decided that I wasn�t on their side on this matter, began to question my motives and declined to answer any more of what were obviously uncomfortable questions from this writer.

This experience with the Swedish support group for Dawit Issac was actually one of the more positive ones, for the other human rights, press and journalist organizations that had called for Dawit Issaks� release, including the new leadership of the WAN, all refused to talk to me or respond to my written questions.

I was able to confirm from contacts I had within these organizations, before these contacts were specifically warned to not talk to me anymore, was that no one in these organizations had copies of Dawits publications to back up their charges and that my contacts couldn�t actually find anyone working for these organizations who had ever even met Dawit Issak in person.

During my next visit to Asmara in 2004, I had a chance to do a little more research on this matter and talked to some friends and family members who worked for the various Eritrean government media. What seemed to be common knowledge, and Asmara and Eritrea as a whole is a very small town sort of place, meaning it is difficult to keep anything a secret for long, is that Dawit Issak was known to frequent the American Cultural Center, run by the USA Embassy in Asmara. He, and all the other so called �free press� in Eritrea had never filed the required tax and business statement covering their finances as required by Eritrean law, in some cases for up to seven years, something they all had been repeatedly warned to do by the Eritrean authorities. Dawit Issak, in particular, had no apparent means of support for himself and his publication, but was seen with considerable sums of cash in his possession, often times after having visited the American Cultural Center.

There were a number of other reports about Dawit Issak and other members of the so-called �free press� in Eritrea, some of which were later confirmed by articles by an American journalist who had taught �journalism classes� in Eritrea under contract to the US State Department and its affiliated organizations, such as the well known CIA front, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), (which RSF has also confirmed, is a major contributor to RSF.)

Historically, the USA has been hostile to Eritrea. There exists an implacable hatred for Eritrea by the US State Department/CIA, including a rabid opposition to even the idea of an independent Eritrea going back to the early 1950s. I have spent the last decade or so uncovering a variety of activities designed to not only discredit Eritrea but to actually support an attempt to destroy and recolonize Eritrea by Ethiopia (see �US Behind Invasion of Eritrea�, June 2000) by the powers that be in the White House and in Langley, Virginia.

What I don�t understand is how supposedly educated and politically aware activists in Sweden would be so easily convinced, without any solid evidence provided them, that Dawit Issak was some sort of hero. Based on the long, sordid, criminal history of the Western powers in Africa one would think that political activists would be at least a little suspicious of any one supported by the US State Department and their allies in the various Western capitals.

I hope this article may start some genuine, informed debate on whether Dawit Issak, cause celebre in Sweden, is a hero or zero.

For more information and background on this matter please feel free to contact me at thomascmountain at or call me in Asmara, Eritrea at 2911184822.

Check out my latest series on the Horn of Africa in Online Journal for more of the truth the so-called �free press in the West� refuses to cover.

Thomas C. Mountain was, in a former life, an educator, activist and alternative medicine practitioner in the USA.

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