Martin Plaut | Tuesday 1 March 2016 | THE GUARDIAN
Eight legal cases have been launched in the Netherlands against those who dare to oppose the regime
A quiet but well orchestrated campaign is under way in the Netherlands as individuals associated with the Eritrean government try to use the Dutch courts to silence its critics.
Eight such court cases have been launched against liberal newspapers, a radio station, a website, the Dutch government and an academic who have criticised its authoritarian regime.
The cases have been initiated by leaders of the youth wing of Eritrea’s ruling party, the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, but the campaign appears to be guided by senior government officials, including some close to the president, Isaias Afewerki.
Last year Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s closest adviser, told 550 young Eritreans attending the party’s youth rally in Germany that fighting the country’s “enemies” was their top priority.
“Enemies who don’t tire and don’t sleep, who try to bring our downfall … Therefore, our first objective – as YPFDJ and as Eritrean youth, and as community … is to conclusively defeat this hostility hovering over of our nation. That remains the job,” he told the conference.
The first to face the courts in the Netherlands was Mirjam van Reisen, a professor of international relations at the University of Tilburg. As an adviser to the European Union and the UN, Van Reisen is a well-respected Eritrean expert.
In May 2015 the Dutch website Oneworld.nl published an article claiming that some of the interpreters working for the Dutch immigration service were linked to the Eritrean regime.
Eritreans make up the third largest group of people risking the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, with up to 5,000 leaving every month to flee poverty, political repression and indefinite military conscription.
The translators were hired to interpret sensitive conversations between officials and refugees seeking asylum. The article claimed that, contrary to Dutch regulations, some translators had ties to the regime that the asylum seekers were fleeing.
“Many Eritrean asylum seekers are immensely traumatised,” Van Reisen was quoted as saying. “When they discover that the interpreters are linked to the regime they fled from, this undermines their trust in protection by the Dutch authorities.”
She said the situation was potentially dangerous. “The interpreters get sensitive information about the asylum seekers through the interviews that they translate. With this information, they may threaten or extort these refugees. Relatives in Eritrea may also be threatened.”
The article identified the brother and sister of the leader of the ruling party’s youth wing as being among those employed as translators. “The interpreters are linked to the centre of the intelligence in the Netherlands and in Europe,” Van Reisen was quoted as saying.
In May 2015 the former president of the youth wing, Meseret Bahlbi, filed a charge of libel and slander over the article. He asked for an apology, a correction and compensation of at least €25,000.
But when the case came to court on 10 February the judge found that the youth wing had indeed received instructions from the ruling party, that it supported the Eritrean regime, and that its members’ goals were to “act as informants for [the embassies of] the regime in Eritrea”. Bahlbi’s claim was rejected and Van Reisen’s right to freedom of speech was upheld.
Perhaps at least as damaging for the Eritrean government was an admission by Bahlbi in his submission to the court that the country “is a dictatorship and that torture takes place”.
Bahlbi’s siblings brought another case against the Dutch migration agency on 24 February, but once again the court found against them.
Although these cases backfired, at least six others are still being pursued. There are two cases against the Volkskrant – the Netherlands’ equivalent of the Guardian. The paper was in court on 24 February and judgement will be delivered on 11 March. And there are four other cases against media organisation, including Oneworld and Radio Argos.
Critics of the regime have also been the subject of vociferous attacks by users of social media. Van Reisen has been physically threatened. She and I have both been have been demonised:
The United Nations has reported that the Eritrean government has an extensive network of agents who work for the regime around the world. It has also imposed sanctions against Eritrea for sponsoring attacks on its opponents abroad.
In this context the Dutch cases takes on a particularly sinister significance.
Related more: We Are All Isaias Afewerki and He is us