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Campaign ‘Free Them’: Activists seek Release of Eritrean Journalist Seyoum Tsehaye Jailed for 15 Years

Between 1998 and 2000, during Eritrea's war with Ethiopia, Seyoum was critical of the government's secrecy and increasing restrictions on free speech and democracy

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Seyoum Tsehaye has not been heard from since 2001 when he was taken by the Eritrean government. Image Courtsey: VOA
  • Seyoum Tsehaye was taken from his Asmara home by government agents on September 21, 2001, and has not been seen or heard from since
  • Using the hashtag #FreeThem, Human Rights Watch is encouraging people to share Seyoum’s story, hold events and tweet to world leaders asking for his release
  •  Seyoum’s 19-year-old niece Vanessa Berhe has been campaigning for her uncle’s release and started a website onedayseyoum.com for the same

Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye has been missing for 15 years. Human Rights Watch would like to see that he is not forgotten.

As part of its Free Them campaign to highlight political prisoners around the globe, the rights group is focusing attention on Seyoum, the former head of Eritrean state television, who was taken from his Asmara home by government agents on September 21, 2001, and has not been seen or heard from since

Seyoum was part of a group of Eritrean journalists rounded up in a crackdown on independent media. Using the hashtag #FreeThem, Human Rights Watch is encouraging people to share Seyoum’s story, hold events and tweet to world leaders asking for his release.

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Seyoum’s advocates believe he is still alive, based on a comment that Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh made to Radio France Internationale in June.

“The political prisoners are all alive and in good hands,” he said.

“Good hands” might be an inaccurate term. A former prison guard who escaped Eritrea in 2010 said Seyoum’s hands were bound 24 hours a day. The guard also said that the journalist was being held at the maximum security prison north of Asmara.

The Eritrean government has never commented on Seyoum’s arrest or disclosed his location or condition. His family and friends have not had access to him since he was taken away.

Niece seeks uncle’s release

Seyoum’s 19-year-old niece Vanessa Berhe has been campaigning for her uncle’s release for years. She started a website, onedayseyoum.com, to raise awareness of his plight.

She led a silent protest September 23 in London in which people wore black bandanas over their mouths and marched silently to the Eritrean embassy. Berhe said she hopes the attention will pressure Eritrean leaders to at least offer a trial for the jailed journalists and political dissidents.

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“The main purpose was to stand in solidarity and in that action also to stand in protest. So our act of solidarity was also an act of protest,” she told VOA. “What we’re calling for and what we’ve been calling for since day one is to give these people a fair trial. I mean we think they should be released, but if there is any doubt of their innocence, give them due justice and a trial.”

Seyoum, 66, was a famed war photographer during Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence. He later held various positions including head of the state-run television station Eri-TV.

Between 1998 and 2000, during Eritrea’s war with Ethiopia, Seyoum was critical of the government’s secrecy and increasing restrictions on free speech and democracy. He apparently made enemies.

The state-run television continues to use his photographs during their broadcasts.

“If they use his materials on television fairly regularly, or frequently anyway, why don’t they release him?” asks Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch.

Family still hopeful

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Berhe said her family hasn’t given up hope of seeing him again and believes the campaign will draw the attention of more people.

“He believed in the power of the word, the power of the people and the power of democracy, and I want to show him that what he believed in was strong enough to get him released,” she said.

Seyoum’s wife and two daughters now live in France. The older daughter, Abie, was two years old when the government arrested her father, and his wife was seven months’ pregnant with their youngest daughter, Beilula.

“The youngest one doesn’t have any memories because she never met him. It’s very tough for her,” Berhe said. “The fact that she doesn’t even have any memories and no connection with him whatsoever and that it is impossible to get it because he is imprisoned is something that she’s been carrying with her for a very long time.”

Human Rights Watch said it plans to continue the Free Them campaign, addressing a different case each week. Unfortunately, Stroehlein said, there is no danger that the rights group will run out of cases.

“We can literally do one political prisoner every hour, and we still wouldn’t scratch the surface of a number of people that we’re talking about around the world,” Stroehlein said. “We’re looking at a lot of regimes that are actually getting worse and worse, that are jailing civil society and activists, opposition figures more and more.”

“There’s a huge number and so you know it’s not fair to take one person over the others,” he added, “but if one person is a symbol for the others, it might be able to put a face on this kind of persecution.” (VOA)

Next Story

Russia’s NTV Consistently Uses ‘Abusive Tactics’ to Target Activists, Says Human Rights Watch

NTV -- and the Russian authorities -- began targeting Golos in 2011 for its monitoring of the country’s parliamentary elections, Williamson said

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The Golos logo. RFERL

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the recent arrest of a Russian activist shows the authorities’ unwillingness to rein in “abusive tactics” by the state-affiliated television station NTV.

In a statement on May 24, the New York-based human rights watchdog said that NTV, owned by the Russian-state gas company Gazprom, is “notorious for harassing human rights activists and political opposition members and broadcasting smear campaigns against them.”

The statement by Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, came days after Roman Udot, a board member of the independent Golos (Voice) election-monitoring group, was arrested by police in Moscow.

Williamson said the move stemmed from an incident in March 2018, when NTV reporters descended on Udot at a Moscow airport and peppered the activist with questions on camera.

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Human Rights Watch headquartered in New York. Wikimedia Commons

“During the heated exchange, Udot used aggressive language toward the reporter, calling out the station’s earlier efforts to get at him through his mother. He then filed a privacy complaint with the police,” he said.

Meanwhile, police opened a criminal case against Udot for threatening the reporter’s life. The case was suspended while Udot was on an extended trip abroad. But when he returned to Russia earlier this month, he filed a request to reopen the case to tell his account of what happened.

And on May 20, Udot was questioned, detained, and placed under house arrest by the authorities. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison, according to HRW. NTV — and the Russian authorities — began targeting Golos in 2011 for its monitoring of the country’s parliamentary elections, Williamson said.

Six years ago, Golos became the first NGO to be fined under the controversial 2013 law requiring all NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as “foreign agents.”

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To get footage, NTV reporters have aggressively stalked Golos activists, including Udot, and their families and interfered with their privacy. Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Golos said it was being targeted for uncovering widespread violations in the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential vote, which handed Vladimir Putin a third presidential term.

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NTV has since broadcast films “smearing Golos staffers with misrepresenting the facts or falsely portraying them as paid agents of foreign powers,” Williamson said. “To get footage, NTV reporters have aggressively stalked Golos activists, including Udot, and their families and interfered with their privacy.”

He quoted Golos as saying that law enforcement may be sharing surveillance data with the TV station. “At least two Golos activists relocated because of their ordeal. Udot chose not to, and his ordeal continues,” Williamson added. (RFERL)