Various media outlets have reported that Yemane Gebreab was not allowed to address the Eritrean government supporters’ public seminar, in Arlington, on 8 October 2017, during his visit in the United States. He was denied entry to the seminar venue by US law enforcement officers. It seems plausible that he was in violation of a US Executive Order which listed him as a person who threatened US national security and foreign policy with regard to the Somalia situation. Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) has previously written about the danger Yemane Gebreab poses to Eritreans inside and outside Eritrea and the international community at large. In particular, Yemane Gebreab set-up an unsuccessful assassination attempt in Somalia on an Italian journalist who lived to tell the story.
Whilst the above flier was distributed to advertise the event at which Yemane Gebreab was going to be present, alongside Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh, the official website of the Eritrean Government reported that Osman Saleh alone conducted the seminar. Since the news that Yemane Gebreab was detained spread quickly, it appears the Eritrean Government tried to cover up this embarrassing turn of events. Manufacturing after-the-fact appearances is no new thing for the Eritrean government.
The UN conducted an inquiry into human rights violations in Eritrea and concluded in June 2016 that crimes against humanity were both widespread and systematic. The country is a one-party state, run by the top members of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), whose chairman is also the current and only president since 1991, Isaias Afewerki. His personal advisor is Yemane Gebreab, the man who proposes policies and implements them. Except that he does much more.
Yemane Gebreab is widely known as the Presidential Advisor in Eritrea and head of Political Affairs in the PFDJ. However, these titles are nominal and only some of the roles he plays. Not only is Yemane Gebreab one of the main political minds behind the PFDJ, but his activities also range as widely in scope and depth as they do in nefariousness. He is active both at national and international level. HRCE has previously called for his arrest, and has since spoken to and received confidential testimonies from agents who in the past were deployed by Yemane Gebreab himself. They confirmed what most Eritreans already knew about him, through word of mouth or partial first-hand experience.
On the international front, Yemane Gebreab is perhaps most infamous for masterminding and establishing the Young PFDJ (YPFDJ), a youth organisation which has parallels with the Balilla organisation which existed in Fascist Italy during the first half of the 20th century. YPFDJ even has enforcers called Eri-Blood, who intimidate anyone who expresses discontent with the Eritrean government and its practices. However, intimidation is not the only purpose of this organisation. Through the YPFDJ, whose members are not necessarily only youth, the PFDJ organises propaganda campaigns and spreads misinformation among the diaspora and other groups which interact with the Eritrean community abroad. Just as the YPFDJ meetings, often headed by Yemane Gebreab himself, spread false propaganda, they also serve as a means to fundraise and host events where money is either directly collected or obtained through sales of tickets or other items. This alone should have landed Yemane Gebreab in a US jail in the years since the standing executive order was first issued in 2010 by the then president Barack Obama.
Most of the funds raised by the YPFDJ and PFDJ in the diaspora come from the older segments of the Eritrean community abroad. Worryingly, however, Yemane Gebreab organises these supporters to act as his informants. The former-agents whom HRCE has spoken with say that even middle-aged or elderly women, or other members of the Eritrean community abroad who might not raise suspicion, are used to spy on fellow Eritreans in the diaspora. Though many Eritreans knew this already, the testimony HRCE has received confirms the extent to which this tactic is systematic and widespread. Whilst the ordinary civilian may be used as an informant for Yemane Gebreab, trained individuals ranging from youth to middle-aged are deployed in the diaspora community.
These youth, invariably members of the YPFDJ, but not necessarily openly so, are individuals who are carefully selected and sent to training camps inside Eritrea, often under the pretence of a vacation visit. They are trained using a program run by Yemane Gebreab which is intended to produce cadres fiercely loyal to the regime. These youth are taken around the country in a program called Zura-Hagerka, to the youth festival in Sawa Military Camp, to Nakfa (the old bastion town during the war for independence) to camps around Asmara (such as Asha Golgol) and other towns where their training is conducted. Not all of these youth are selected to become Yemane Gebreab’s agents. However, those who are selected are deployed in the diaspora and made to inform on the community, infiltrate organisations or set-up money laundering businesses, or even become part of the Eri- Blood.
It is worrying that Eritrean youth from the diaspora willingly and voluntarily choose to partake in these criminal affairs, although the PFDJ regime has become expert at targeting the more vulnerable and disillusioned amongst the youth abroad. Unlike them, however, there are other Eritreans who also operate in the diaspora but have no choice in the matter. These are conscripts who hail from within the country and are trained in special cadre programs. These Eritreans might get brainwashed to the level of accepting the rhetoric fed them by Yemane Gebreab, although most are deeply aware that they have no choice but to obey, for it is not only their lives which are endangered; they also fear for their families. Few who manage to escape the grip of Yemane Gebreab’s network manage to share inside information. They are unambiguous about the fact that Yemane Gebreab runs these programs, participates in training and brainwashing cadres, as well as being the person who has the final word in all decision-making.
The cadres deployed outside Eritrea by Yemane Gebreab have a slightly different job from the YPFDJ youth who are trained in the country and then sent back to their diaspora communities, although it must be kept in mind that often their roles overlap. These agents are told the country depends on them and that their training and job has been entrusted to them by the Eritrean people. They are made to believe they are the true inheritors of the legacy which led to the country’s independence and are instructed in no uncertain terms to put the country before their lives. Of course, by “country” Yemane Gebreab means the interests of himself, Isaias Afwerki and their kleptocratic clique. In fact, veneration of Isaias Afwerki is part of their training as they are assured that if it were not for Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ, the country would be lost.
Thus trained, involuntarily conscripted men and women from Eritrea are often sent to work in embassies, consulates or other PFDJ offices around the world. The former agents whom HRCE spoke with clarify that these cadres are assigned the job of spying and watching every move of ambassadors, consuls and other staff in these offices. The sources recall how, during their training, Yemane Gebreab would warn them to watch very closely Eritrean officials, diplomats and other leadership figures who visit from Eritrea. He would caution them that they are to monitor these diplomats’ movements as if they were a cancerous tumour. Accordingly, he instructs the agents he sends abroad to record what Eritrean diplomats and officials say in meetings and at public events, keeping an eye out for any sign of dissent or criticism. If these officials show any hint of discontent, they are to be reported and are consequently recalled back to the country.
While abroad, the cadres deployed from Eritrea are also made to monitor and report on Eritrean-owned businesses and Eritrean individuals. They may receive orders to repatriate individuals targeted by the PFDJ and Yemane Gebreab. In practice, this translates to finding ways to undermine these individuals and business owners so that either their immigration status or licences are revoked. It may even extend to outright abduction and enforced disappearance. This practice seems to be done more in African and middle-eastern countries, where some of governments might even co-operate with the PFDJ in deporting targeted individuals. Examples of this can be found in neighbouring countries such as Sudan, where, throughout the years, abductions of Eritreans from Sudanese territory are conducted by Eritrean agents.
Moreover, agents who answer to and co-operate with Yemane Gebreab can also be foreign nationals. Recalling the assassination attempt on the Italian journalist mentioned above, the Somalis who allowed the journalist to escape were reprimanded by Yemane Gebreab. Furthermore, part of the reason his name is the only non-Somali name on the list in the Executive Order concerning the turmoil in Somalia is due to his and his agents’ work in the region.
However, the international activities by Yemane Gebreab form only part of the picture, as he is also deeply entrenched in the terror his activities within the country cause to the Eritrean People. As mentioned in a previous article, Yemane Gebreab admits in an interview that he and the PFDJ arrested without due legal process and detained incommunicado a group of journalists and his former colleagues and senior ministers known as the G11 in 2001. (The G11 were part of the G15, a group of senior government officials who publicly called for democracy and change, but only 11 of them were in the country at the time of arrest, and few are thought to survive to this day). Though this case is the most famous internationally, Yemane Gebreab is co-perpetrator of other persecutions and enforced disappearances within the country.
Inside Eritrea, Yemane Gebreab is one of the main political minds behind the PFDJ, and as such, he plans and implements various repressive internal policies. He plays a crucial role in the establishment and running of youth programs, including the national service and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS), the internal equivalent of the YPFDJ and the organisation which handles all Eritrean youth affairs before they are conscripted into the military, which occurs before they even finish secondary education. This includes participation in PFDJ organised events and the release or withholding of the ID card all students must have before they are conscripted, on penalty of detention and early conscription into the military.
Whilst Gebreab partakes in shaping such national policies to the extent that he is known as second-in-command in the country after Isaias Afewerki, the cadres he controls are put to work even inside Eritrea. The espionage network in Eritrea is as unnerving as possible, but what makes it even more fearsome for those who have to live under it is that elements like those organised and deployed by Yemane Gebreab do not fall under the control of any normal intelligence agency. They receive orders and respond solely to the president’s office and to Yemane Gebreab. For years the Eritrean population has lived in dread of accidentally offending one of these informants or any other covert agents infiltrated within the population.
A particular terrorising effect is achieved by the agents of Yemane Gebreab inside Eritrea by the fact that they not only spy on the population but also demand that citizens inform on each other. The testimonies received by HRCE clarify that the cadres and agents trained and deployed by Yemane Gebreab are often given quotas and targets to monitor. Consequently, they follow the target in public places such as cafes, places of work, churches, mosques, etc. In such places, these agents approach the persons running the locales, businesses or places of worship and force them to inform on the targeted citizens. This creates a daily atmosphere of terror in the population, because no one can be sure if their colleague, their waiter, their church leader or their imam is watching their every move and reporting to these agents. To use a recent development within the country as a further example, it appears that the PFDJ regime is now assigning one family in each neighbourhood to act as informants on a group of surrounding families, reporting the comings and goings of each member of the assigned families they watch.
At this point it is important to remind the reader that Eritreans live in terror of the consequences that may befall them if they appear to know anything unauthorised or do not cooperate with the demands made of them. In such ways Yemane Gebreab instils fear among Eritreans so that no one dares to speak to their neighbour openly, let alone organise to demand their rights or change the system. There is now an entire generation born and raised in such conditions of fear, and Yemane Gebreab is the main actor pulling the strings of the mechanisms that have terrorised many of the young people as well as most of the adult population for their entire lives, both inside and outside Eritrea. Gebreab has committed crimes against humanity and used people who have been forced into slavery to partake in his schemes. He is one of the main persons, perhaps only the second after Isaias Afwerki, to have illegitimately detained and directly caused the deaths of hundreds accused of dissenting against the PFDJ, of whom the most famous are amongst the G11 and journalists forcibly disappeared in September 2001.
It baffles the mind then that Yemane Gebreab has thus far been allowed to enter Europe and the United States of America freely. European leaders and representatives of other United Nations member states should refuse to interact with such a criminal and should denounce him. The UN has recommended that those who systematically perpetrate crimes against humanity in Eritrea should face prosecution and Yemane Gebreab should be one of the most wanted men in Eritrea, detained immediately upon setting foot outside Eritrea and prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC). HRCE recognises that some steps such as sanction and seizure of financial assets have been taken by the United States. However, it is feared that the seriousness of Yemane Gebreab’s crimes are grossly underestimated by the leaders of such countries and international organisations.
HRCE appeals to all countries to deny entry to Yemane Gebreab and to refuse political and financial cooperation with him and the party he represents. It seems that Yemane Gebreab has been set free losing a major opportunity to detain him. However, if the U.S, European or other country’s authorities get another chance to put him in custody, HRCE recommends that instead of being released to perpetrate further crimes against humanity, he should be detained until he is brought before the ICC to answer for the major role he has played in terrorising and eliminating innocent Eritreans.