On September 11, it was confirmed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide that 27 Eritrean Christian prisoners of conscience were released from Mai Serwa Prison near Asmara in early September, likely due to the increasing dangers of COVID-19 in detention centers across the world. The group of 27 included 19 men and 8 women, some of whom had been in prison awaiting trial for up 10 16 years. “However, the releases are reportedly conditional on the submission of property deeds ensuring their guarantors are held liable for their future actions.”
Despite what is a release that garners much celebration, it is important to note that many mass releases of prisoners come in the days following mass arrests- such is a “government strategy” in which the government imprisons believers for lengthy periods of time to weaken their spirit and strength, only to release them suddenly while at the same time taking in a new hoard of subjects.
Estimates of how many Eritrean Christians remain in prisons around the country fluctuate around 300, with some 40 children under the age of 18 years. A large portion of these prisoners of are held at Mai Serwa Prison, where large shipping containers are often used as holding cells. Additionally, many of Eritrea’s detention centers and prisons are known to be overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking in medical care, thus placing all prisoners- political and religious alike- at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. CSW’s Mervyn Thomas stated:
“While applauding the fact that people who were deprived of their liberty have regained their freedom, it is also important to recall that they were detained arbitrarily and without due process for excessive periods simply on account of their religious beliefs. Moreover, these releases remain conditional, as they were secured by property deeds, leaving the guarantors vulnerable to losing their properties. The guarantors could also lose their freedom should a former detainee exercise the right to leave the country….”
Chief Executive of Release International, Paul Robertson, explains that while the release of these 27 religious prisoners of conscience is a major step taken in the right direction, “some have been behind bars for so long that they have become completely institutionalized. They will need help and support.” Release International calls on the government of Eritrea to taken even further steps by releasing unconditionally all religious prisoners of conscience, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.