CSW and Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) are concerned at the misreporting of events surrounding a counter protest by Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers against a pro-government gathering outside the Eritrean Embassy in London which was forcefully dispersed by police on 4 September.
Those dispersed and arrested have been described in several media reports as being “a mob” and “rioters”, amid claims that they “clashed” with police officers. However, video footage illustrates that at most the counter protestors, who were demonstrating against what they termed “the long arm” of the Eritrean ruling party and who had stated they would leave as soon as its supporters were dispersed, did not target the police with violence.
Supporters of the Eritrean regime, many of whom have sought asylum in other nations disingenuously, regularly harass, intimidate and have even been known to attack government opponents abroad, including in the UK.
According to a reliable source who was at the protests, the government supporters were already outside the venue in full force at around 1.30pm, and some were armed with bottles and wooden canes. They launched an attack on counter protestors as they were slowly gathering, injuring three people prior to the police arriving.
A counter protestor who spoke with police, asking them to disperse the pro-government group as their songs and statements, which were being amplified by loudspeakers and broadcast on social media, were inflammatory, hateful, and provocative, was informed the gathering would end in 15 minutes.
However, once 15 minutes elapsed, the police placed vans between the two groups and allowed the government supporters to continue. When the negotiator asked what was happening, he was told to move his group further back. The counter protestors complied, reiterating they were happy to leave once the pro-regime gathering was dispersed.
As more time elapsed and the negotiator approached the police for a further update, he was curtly informed it was not their job to provide one. When this response was relayed to the counter protestors, some attempted to go behind police lines to end the hate speech.
Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of HRCE, said: “Among the government supporters are trained gangs who physically attack protestors and members of the opposition regularly, and this is what occurred on Sunday. Their statements and songs were deliberately inciting and designed to provoke a response. It is not the first time that regime supporters have targeted individuals and groups with violence in the UK. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the police, who did not understand what was being said and sung, unwittingly sided with supporters of a corrupt dictator and war criminal by dispersing and arresting those who were standing for truth and justice in such an unnecessarily heavy-handed manner.”
Eritrea is governed by one of the world’s most repressive regimes which was deemed by a UN Commission of Inquiry to have been committing crimes against humanity since 1991, generating a refugee crisis that has emptied the country of at least 12% of its population. It was one of 24 countries that resisted Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, and was the only African country to vote against the UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.
Over 30,000 Eritreans are currently imprisoned without charge or trial in makeshift detention centres where torture is rife and access to food, potable water and medical treatment is minimal. Some have been held incommunicado for over two decades simply for calling peacefully for democracy, or belonging to mainstream religious communities which are proscribed in Eritrea
The regime plays a pivotal role in the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Ethiopia, with agents operating across the country. It recently launched a huge offensive, fighting on four fronts against the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). During the earlier active phase of this war Eritrean troops were implicated in gross human rights violations against members of the Tigrayan ethnic group, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity, including the destruction of vital infrastructure, mass looting, summary extrajudicial executions of men and boys, extensive conflict-related sexual violence and the use of starvation as a weapon of war.
To maintain the war effort, the Eritrean government has resorted to mass conscription, including of the underaged and elderly, conducting door to door searches. A picture currently circulating on social media depicts members of the Medhane Alem Church in Akrur, Segeneiti, including the elderly and clergy, being forcibly conscripted for the war in Tigray as fighting there intensifies.
The government has also extended its policy of collectively punishing the families of those who have fled the country or are otherwise avoiding Eritrea’s compulsory, indefinite and abusive military service regime. Initially, it would detain the eldest surviving member of an absconder’s family indefinitely. Recently, it has begun seizing the belongings of family members, such as generators and livestock, locking up their homes and depriving them of shelter. Moreover, anyone offering shelter to those rendered destitute by the government suffers the same fate.
CSW’s Head of Advocacy and Africa and Middle East Team Leader Dr Khataza Gondwe said: “The counter protestors are genuine refugees and asylum seekers. Many fled Eritrea after experiencing torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and most endured unspeakable cruelties during their search for a place of refuge. Now, their family members in Eritrea are either being forcibly conscripted regardless of age or ability, or are being deprived of their homes and belongings, along with every possible means of livelihood and source of assistance. It is deeply lamentable that in a free and democratic society, they were the ones who were forcibly dispersed and arrested, while those who initiated the violence were able to continue their incitement and hate speech.”
Eritrea’s role in ongoing violence in Ethiopia has highlighted the possible use of “cultural festivals”- effectively political rallies addressed by government officials, propagandist musicians and party cadres - in raising funds in foreign currency for the war effort, including through extortion. Consequently, several concerts scheduled to take place in Europe this year have been cancelled, including in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.
Supporters of Eritrea’s ruling party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in London had been denied permission to hold a concert on 4 September at a venue in Lambeth, after its owners were warned of the nature of the event. The withdrawal of permission raises questions as to why they were subsequently allowed to gather in the street outside the Eritrean Embassy in Islington with loudspeakers, music, and block the road to traffic on the same date stipulated for the concert.
Notes to Editors:
- In 2019 the peaceful annual prayer and protest vigil jointly organised by CSW, the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the UK, Church in Chains, Human Rights Concern Eritrea and Release Eritrea to mark the outlawing of religious practices not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox Christian denominations or Sunni Islam, and to show solidarity with Eritreans who are imprisoned on account of their religious beliefs, was met with a similarly loud and aggressive counter-protest by government supporters.
- The organising NGOs, who were questioned repeatedly in the lead up to the annual protest vigil by the police, were subsequently obliged to hire private security when it became clear at the last minute that a large counter protest was being organised, and the police would not be in attendance, nor would they be providing barriers on the day.