A network of spies and informers has been carefully nurtured by the Eritrean regime to spy on their own citizens abroad.
The Eritrean diaspora is under constant surveillance – and they know it.
Go to almost any Eritrean opposition gathering and you will see them: young men and women who gather information and intelligence on anyone who steps out of line.
A meeting I held with the renowned Eritrean scholar, Dan Connell, was subjected to harrassment and was filmed by government supporters.
The image above is an example of their work.
Sometimes they go further.
Meetings are broken up and anyone who speaks out against the repression of President Isaias Afwerki is heckled and shouted down.
The youth wing of the ruling party – the YPFDJ – are among the most actively involved in these attempts at intimidation.
I have experienced this myself at first hand on several occasions, but Eritreans are treated much more harshly.
In a previous article I have dealt with the violence that is sometimes meted out against anyone who attempts to protest against Eritrean government events.
During last year’s Bologna festival two members of the official security staff allegedly attacked demonstrators, injuring two of them.
One needed stitches in his head, the other to his head and back.
The Festival security staff were identified by the distinctive T-shirts they wear, with a read heart logo called “Eri blood” with a picture of a red heart.
During a demonstration outside the festival, Eritrean government supporters tried to provoke the opposition by driving their car into the demonstrators.
One person was injured.
Surveillance in Scandinavia
This is what Tewlede Ghirma told Radio Assena on 9 July this year.
He explained that an Eritrean he shared a house with in Norway – Michael – threatened him as a member of the opposition.
His computer was hacked and although Tewelde reported this to the police nothing was done. Meanwhile his family in Asmara was arrested and detained for three weeks until they managed to escape.
Tewdle says Michael travels to Eritrea frequently and is involved in smuggling. Twelde says he believes Michael is behind the hacking of his computer and the arrest of his family.
Tewelde is convinced that he is targeted because of his opposition to the regime. And his case is not an isolated one.
Eritreans in Norway and Sweden have complained that they hare systematically harassed, their computers and mobile phones hacked and pressure exerted on them because of their politics.
The UN Commission of Inquiry
Considerable international attention has been given to the UN Commission’s findings on the human rights abuses conducted by the regime which – they concluded – are so severe they might constitute ‘crimes against humanity.’
Little attention was paid to what the commissioners had to say about the Eritrean spy network around the world. Below I have incorporated what was said. It is worrying.
Clearly the regime has constructed a sophisticated system of keeping its disapora under surveillance.
This is something governments around the world need to halt.
From the Commission Report
(ii) Eritrean diaspora
- The spying web has its outposts outside Eritrea, used to control the Eritrean population in the various countries where they reside. Eritrean resentations in foreign countries recruit spies to conduct surveillance of Eritreans in the diaspora. Allegedly, Government operatives are active in almost every other place Eritreans live. Information obtained by the Commission indicates that, to conduct spying activities on their behalf, embassies often approach individuals from within the Eritrean communities abroad, in particular those who pay the 2 per cent Rehabilitation Tax as this is perceived as a form of support to the Government.
One witness who reported having been a spy for an Eritrean embassy told the Commission that “In 1997, Mr. [A], the consul in [a foreign country]… called me for a meeting joined by other spies. They told us we should continue our struggle in [a foreign country]. He introduced us to each other and started meeting us individually. There was an organisation … We were assigned to this organisation, not to work but to ensure the PFDJ was represented in every organisation. They wanted me to join the board. I refused, arguing I was too young and inexperienced. Later, Mr. A told me he had a job for me. He told me I should work for them as a security agent in [city Z]. He said this would only be between him and me. Later, he gave me appointments and said I would always be able to enter the consulate, without needing permission and without having to wait for an appointment. Even the people at the consulate were not allowed to ask us any questions. I received a schedule for the entire week. I was asked to go every day to different hotels or restaurants. There were three shifts per day. We were asked to chat with people who came to those places and report on what we heard. Every day, I had to report back to the consul in person. I believed this was the right thing to do … We had to observe every religious group. Those working in the religious groups are church members and PFDJ members at the same time … We did not know who was an agent and who was not. The work was organised by the consul alone, not with others. Now they have people who don’t trust each other. At the time, it was different … I decided to discontinue my work with them.”
- The Commission heard accounts of how spies track individuals who are considered to be political dissidents or engaging in religious activities that are not authorised in Eritrea.
A person told the Commission that: “My brother and my father cannot go back to Eritrea because they belong to the opposition party. There are spies in [a foreign country] who spy on what Eritreans do there.”
Another person told the Commission that: “People cannot speak freely. Even here in [a foreign country], Eritreans cannot speak freely because the Government of Eritrea sends people to spy on those who have fled Eritrea.”
- The focus of this espionage also includes political organizations and religious entities. However, more generally the purpose of the surveillance by embassy operatives is for the Government to detect any suspicious and undesirable conduct, namely conduct that is perceived to be against the policies or needs of the Government.
- Eritreans in the diaspora, for fear of reprisals, have felt the negative impact of the spying and surveillance on their lives. Many people spoke about the fear of returning to Eritrea to visit because they might have been backlisted due to their political and other activities. Other people told the Commission about how they felt constrained to join organisations in the diaspora or express free opinions regarding the situation in the country. Most importantly, the Commission found that there are legitimate fears among Eritreans in the diaspora that the Eritrean Government engages in phone tapping and email surveillance in Eritrea such that they cannot freely communicate with their relatives in the country.
(c) Other means to conduct spying and surveillance
(i) Intimidation and harassment
- The Commission gathered information indicating that the spy web of the Government of Eritrea uses intimidation – specifically in the form of threats and retaliation against family members – and harassment to collect information. This is done to put pressure on people within and outside Eritrea.
A witness told the Commission that: “When I left the country, the security forces kept on asking my wife if I was coming back or not. They made frequent visits to the house. They tried to make her their informant so that they could extract information about my activities. They thought that I was involved in political activities. In 2008, due to the visits and harassment, she packed and left the country with the children.”
In a submission received by the Commission, a man who was harassed by security agents reported: “The darkest night for me was actually after I was released from jail. Every morning and every evening the national security forces were coming to my family and asking, ‘What did you do? Did your daughter recant? What did you do?’ This happened almost every day. My family kept telling me, ‘If you do not recant, if you do not leave this religion, you are going to send us to prison’.”
Another person whose mother was detained for asking questions told the Commission that: “In Asmara, there were always people watching our family. I first began to notice it in 2009. They were always in the same cars, the same people. They just sat outside our apartment when we were home and followed us when we went out. They never said anything to us or touched us. However, on one occasion my mother was stopped on her way home from work. She was asked where she was coming from and she asked who they were. They told her that they were from the security agency. She asked to see their badges. She was not satisfied and told them that she would not respond. She was arrested and detained for a day.”
During the conduct of interviews with Eritreans in the diaspora, one witness told the Commission that “A colleague and I have received death threats for the past three weeks from someone in Asmara. My colleague … called back and recorded the conversation. We are told the number is an intelligence number.”
A son whose father was arrested and detained for the former’s alleged political activities in the diaspora told the Commission that: “My father was imprisoned for 20 months when he returned from [a foreign country]… We do not know why he was arrested and he was not told the reasons either. But when he returned to Eritrea, before he was arrested, intelligence people asked him about my political activities. He was told to ask me to leave the political organisation I was affiliated to.”
Another witness told the Commission that while he was living abroad, his mother was approached by national security officers: “One day when going to work she spoke to a woman in the intelligence unit who said to her ‘Your son is very active in the opposition, why don’t you tell him to just concentrate on his studies?’ to which my mother replied ‘You know today’s children, they don’t listen to their mothers’.”