A journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual nationality, Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in one of Eritrean President Issayas Aferworki’s detention centres – cut off from the world and his family – for 14 years. The founder of the pro-reform newspaper Seti, Isaak is just the most visible face of the unrelenting impunity that has held sway in Eritrea, Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, since the fateful day in September 2001 that the government shut down the country’s privately-owned media for good.
The European Parliament’s belated calls in 2009 and 2011 for the release of Isaak and all other detained journalists went unanswered. After diplomatic channels proved ineffective, Isaak’s lawyers, Jesús Alcalá and Percy Bratt, and Prisca Orsonneau of Reporters Without Borders sent a request to the Eritrean high court to issue a writ of habeas corpus for Isaak on the grounds that his detention is illegal under Eritrea’s laws and the international conventions to which Eritrea is party. In 2012, they also petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which agreed to examine the case. The Eritrean authorities did not respond to either of these initiatives.
In reaction to Sweden’s adoption of a universal jurisdiction law, the same three lawyers filed a legal complaint in Sweden in June 2014 accusing the Eritrean president and his closest aides of a crime against humanity, enforced disappearance and torture in the Isaak case. This new hope of freeing Isaak was quickly dashed. The Swedish prosecutor assigned to the case closed it almost immediately on the grounds that the Eritrean authorities were unlikely to cooperate. An appeal against this decision was also unsuccessful and seems to confirm the Swedish justice system’s lack of interest in the fate of one of its own citizens.