A change of UK policy towards Eritrea?

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Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, and special political advisor to the President, Yemane Ghebreab, visited the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the first time last week at the invitation of the UK Government. Analysts in the UK described the visit as a possible shift in UK policy. Eritrea is currently under UN sanctions for its role in destabilization in the Horn of Africa, its support for Al-Shabaab and for its refusal to respond to UN Security Council resolutions 1844 and 1907.

Yemane Ghebreab, of course, was described as an “extraordinary threat” to US national security in a presidential order signed by President Obama in April 2010. The Eritrean officials met with the UK’s Minister of State for Africa, Henry Bellingham, and other senior officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and with the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell. A range of bilateral and regional issues were discussed including regional security and stability, and migration and piracy.

Mr. Bellingham underlined the importance that the UK attaches to improvements to human rights including religious and press freedom in Eritrea and the case of the G-11 ministers and officials arrested in September 2001 and held incommunicado without charge or trial ever since. Several are believed to have died in detention. Last month, Eritrea was ranked last for the fifth year running in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index with at least 34 journalists in prison, including some held in solitary confinement since September 2001.

A number of rights groups including Reporters Without Borders have continued to campaign for them. Those detained include the Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaac the subject of a Habeas Corpus petition sent to the Supreme Court in Asmara in July 2011 requesting Dawit's immediate appearance in court under Eritrea's constitutional and criminal code provisions and international obligations. Eritrea, of course, does not have a constitution.

The court has so far refused to acknowledge receipt of the petition. Efforts were also made in the UK by the London-based human rights NGO, Redress, by Reporters Without Borders and by the Eritrean human rights campaigner, Elsa Chyrum, to bring Naizghi Kiflu, a former head of security and information minister at the time of the September 2001 crackdown, to trial for his responsibility for torture of detainees. Naizghi, subsequently an adviser to President Isaias, died in the UK on February 6th after a long illness. (MoFA)

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