AMSTERDAM (IDN) - The reach of an allegedly long arm of the Eritrean regime abroad has been the subject of a series of high profile articles in the media. Latest reports say that it is not only targeting Eritrean refugees but also Dutch citizens.
At the core of the debate is a series of articles by OneWorld journalist Sanne Terlingen who revealed that members suspected to have links to the Eritrean regime were serving as interpreters in asylum cases. Two siblings of the chair of the YPFDJ, the youth wing of the only party of Eritrea, were still employed by the interpretation service, even though the rules of the Dutch government agency would not allow this.
In connection with these articles, YPFDJ’s former chair Meseret Bahlbi sued Prof Dr Mirjam van Reisen on the plea that she had in a commentary linked the YPFDJ to Eritrean surveillance and intelligence, a link disputed by Bahlbi. Incidentally Bahlbi was not named but he felt he was the target of the comment.
The Dutch media have also been reporting on alleged intimidation. Prof Dr van Reisen claimed she had received threatening tweets. The newspaper De Volkskrant reported that a car had followed her. Court proceedings indicated that Bahibi had accused Van Reisen of being part of a trafficking ring.
Van Reisen’s lawyer Van den Biesen, argued that the YPFDJ could be viewed as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Eritrean regime, keeping close tabs on Eritreans abroad. Van den Biesen refered to a youtube video of a speech of the leader of the YPFDJ, Yemane Gebreab, an advisor to President Esayas Afewerki, at a YPFDJ meeting in Germany in April 2015. In the video Gebreab directs the YPFDJ members to identify “enemies” and to ensure that the YPFDJ-members know who they are, where they are and what their tactics are.
In the Dutch radio show Argos, Eritrea expert Jacques Willemse corroborated this sentiment: “The regime can only survive if all possible opposition can be oppressed both internally and externally. How can you do this? By gathering as much information as possible about suspected adversaries.”
Eritrean commentator Selam Kidane has already drawn her conclusion in good English understatement: “Meseret accuses Mirjam Van Reisen of slandering him by claiming that his activities for YPFDJ extend to passing information to PFDJ. We shall see what the court makes of that, but as for me the attempt to make us believe that PFDJ and YPFDJ are independent organizations and that they don’t share information about the people that are working to undermine PFDJ’s continued grip on power is a rather refreshing news.”
The court hearing on January 27 drew a full room of Eritreans and has continued to draw attention of the Eritrean community. Many Eritreans have come forward to give details on the organization of the Eritrean intelligence network. Bahlbi and his lawyer stated during the court proceedings that these statements were not credible as they were all members of the ‘opposition’.
Legal sources argue that Interpreters are particularly well placed to gather intelligence on Eritrean refugees. The information that refugees give in their asylum process can have menacing repercussions, especially for family members of refugees within Eritrea, if it reaches the Eritrean regime.
Dutch politician Linda Voortman stressed in an interview to Argos the critical importance of the integrity of the interpreters, which she said, must be beyond any doubt. The two interpreters that OneWorld covered in their research were suspended only after a picture was published of an event of the YPFDJ in which one of the interpreters could clearly be identified.
According to Voortman, it is particularly worrying that the interpreter could identify other interpreters working for the Dutch immigration office by name in the picture, yet no further investigations were made.
Intelligence gathering is not the only problem for the Eritrean diaspora; it is intimidation too. In Dutch media such as the newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’ and radio programme ‘Spijkers met Koppen’, Mirjam van Reisen gave a personal account of the intimidation she had experienced. “I know now what it feels like to be Eritrean,” she said, referring to the fear of reprisals that Eritreans in and out of the country appeared to have felt for years.
She reported that her car had been followed and she had found it difficult to shake off the pursuer. Other people that have worked on Eritrea describe similar situations. Sanne Terlingen, journalist at OneWorld, says an avalanche of Twitter-messages rolls down whenever someone is critical of Eritrea.
UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, has experienced being followed in the Netherlands. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council made a special announcement that members of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea had been harassed and intimidated in their hotel after publishing a damning report on the human rights situation in Eritrea, outlining possible crimes against humanity.
In the Dutch programme ‘Nieuwsuur’, Dutch parliamentarian Attje Kuiken said that a large-scale investigation was urgently needed. “We cannot let this continue,” she stated. She also expressed surprise that reports like this had been surfacing for years, yet nothing had been done to protect the Eritrean refugees and the people that reported on Eritrea.
The decision of the court case against Prof Van Reisen will be announcdd on February 10. The same day the court will hear a case Bahlbi has filed against the Director of the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). Bahlbi has sued the IND arguing that it wrongly linked YPFDJ to the Eritrean regime. Also several media in The Netherlands have received court summons. “YPFDJ seems to be using the Dutch rule of law to defend its views, a rule of law which is denied to Eritreans in their own country,” said Selam Kidane. [IDN-InDepthNews – 9 February 2016]
IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea Sheila B. Keetharuth introducing New UN report detailing litany of human rights violations, ‘rule by fear’ in Eritrea in June 2015. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard