Seeking Justice for Dawit Isaak

By Judith Abitan

On September 23, 2001, Swedish-Eritrean journalist, Dawit Isaak — prolific writer, playwright, and courageous journalist with Setit, Eritrea’s first independent newspaper — was imprisoned without charge or trial by the Eritrean government following a crackdown on the independent press. Setit was published from 1997 until its forcible closure in 2001.

Mr. Isaak and his colleagues are the longest detained journalists in the world today. September 23, 2022 will mark 21 years of detention. Their cases and causes are not only heartbreaking and egregiously unjust, but emblematic of the global assault on media freedom by authoritarian regimes, which continues to intensify under the cover of a global pandemic of impunity.

The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights  in partnership with an international coalition of leading NGOs, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN International, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights’ Institute, Parliamentarians for Global Action, Defend Defenders, and Mr. Isaak’s Swedish legal counsel, continue to call for accountability of the Eritrean government’s gross human rights violations against Mr. Isaak and his colleagues, and their immediate and unconditional release.

There have been some important developments in Mr. Isaak’s case. A number of opinion editorials have been published in international media outlets; the international coalition held a webinar with leading experts on the 20th anniversary of dictatorship in Eritrea; the coalition issued a joint press release calling for targeted Magnitsky sanctions against the senior Eritrean officials responsible for crimes against humanity against Mr. Isaak and his colleagues; a letter was written to Mr. Isaak on PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer; hearings were held in both the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) and the Canadian Parliament on the case of Mr. Isaak; and the coalition recently filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for his urgent and unconditional release. The coalition is hopeful that an opinion from the Working Group will be rendered soon.

This past June, the UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, released a damning report on the repression of civil society in the country, underscoring the case of Mr. Isaak, his colleagues, and members of the G-15 (11 former members of the Eritrean government also detained in 2001). The coalition has also been in conversation with Dr. Babiker who is in strong support of its advocacy.

Canada has played a crucial role in global media freedom, and should lead by example in the case of Mr. Isaak. Canada should invoke the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which it launched in February 2021 (now endorsed by 69 states, including Sweden); urge the community of democracies to support the call of UN experts for the urgent and unconditional release of Mr. Isaak and his colleagues; impose targeted Magnitsky sanctions against senior Eritrean officials; and refer the situation in Eritrea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, pursuant to the 2016 recommendation of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.

The coalition will not relent until the perpetrators are held to account, and Mr. Isaak and his colleagues are released.

Judith Abitan is an international human rights advocate and has been the Executive Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights since its inception in 2015. She is actively engaged in the advocacy of international justice issues and the defence of political prisoners.