Probe into Eritrean riots “should not let regime off the hook”

2024-02-28 17:21:30 Written by  Published in English Articles Read 364 times

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Martin Plaut

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Martin Plaut

February 21

“Violence is never acceptable and can never be condoned,” Van Reisen told Dutch News. “Having said that, Brigade Nhamedu is very concerned about the fact that the long arm of the Eritrean government is given so much leeway and in some cases enjoys official protection, while it is impinging on their freedom.”

February 21, 2024 Gordon Darroch

Source: Dutch News

Police officers standing by a burned-out car on Fruitweg in The Hague after the riots. Photo: Mouneb Taim/Anadolu via ANP

An investigation into the riots that erupted at an Eritrean festival in The Hague at the weekend should examine the role of Eritrea’s government as well as opposition groups, politicians and academics have said.

On Wednesday the prosecution service said a 28-year-old man had been arrested on Friday, the day before the riots, for posting a video calling on people to attack the gathering at the Opera venue on Fruitweg.

Thirteen people aged between 19 and 36 have so far been arrested in the wake of the riots on Saturday evening, in which police and firefighters were pelted with stones and police cars and a coach were set on fire. Fifteen officers were injured.

The Hague’s mayor, Jan van Zanen, blamed a group opposed to the Eritrean regime, Brigade Nhamedu, for orchestrating the violence, which he called “appalling and unacceptable”.

Van Zanen issued an emergency order early on Saturday restricting access to the venue after receiving indications that opposition activists were planning to disrupt the gathering, but acknowledged afterwards that “signs were missed”.

Politicians have called for an investigation into Brigade Nhamedu’s activities, with some, such as the far-right PVV, calling for those responsible for the violence to be deported immediately.

Eritrea’s government has also condemned the violence and refuted any suggestions it was indirectly responsible.

Negassi Kassa Tekle, the country’s ambassador to Belgium who also serves the community in the Netherlands,told Nieuwsuur: “This is not a political issue. This is a lawless group of people merely focusing on the disruption and obstruction of Eritrean gatherings.”

But Mirjam van Reisen, professor of international relations at Tilburg University, who specialises in human rights in Eritrea, said tensions within the community had increased in recent years as the government tried to exert control through cultural events.

“Violence is never acceptable and can never be condoned,” Van Reisen told Dutch News. “Having said that, Brigade Nhamedu is very concerned about the fact that the long arm of the Eritrean government is given so much leeway and in some cases enjoys official protection, while it is impinging on their freedom.”

Some Dutch MPs have echoed the calls for a wider investigation into the conflict within the Eritrean community. 

Bente Becker, of the right-wing Liberal (VVD) party, said: “It would be good for the cabinet to investigate the activities of Brigade Nhamedu and take action against the organisation if necessary. But we should also not forget the influence of the Eritrean regime.”

According to the former BBC journalist Martin Plaut, Brigade Nhamedu was formed two years ago following clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters in the German city of Giessen, at what was billed as a cultural event.

Targets

The organisation targets government-organised events because they are seen as fundraisers for Eritrea’s government, one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.

“Brigade Nhamedu isn’t a close-knit organisation,” says Van Reisen. “It’s more of a network that responds when a festival is organised. People living in the area, as well as some who travel, mobilise and want to make their voices heard.”

President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea as a one-party state since 1993, two years after it declared independence from Ethiopia, when he won 95% of votes in the national assembly.

Paramilitary organisations supporting the Eritrean government, with names such as Eri-Blood and Eri-Makhete, have appeared at cultural events in recent years, notably in Israel, where 150 people were hurt in clashes in Tel Aviv last September.

Tear gas

Police fired live rounds and tear gas at protesters, with one anonymous source comparing the level of violence to “the kind of scenes you only see on the West Bank”. Eritrean community leaders said they had asked police to cancel the event, warning there would be riots.

Fourth Front, a campaign group backed by the Eritrean government, posted a Facebook message in October announcing a demonstration in The Hague “to take revenge and be compensated for our disrupted festivals”.

Pro-democracy groups such as the Organisation for Eritrean Human Rights Defenders called for the event to be banned, claiming it had a “military character” and would spark riots.

Paramilitiaries

Van Reisen said Eri-Blood was highly likely to have been involved in the rioting last weekend. “Invariably you see these paramilitaries, or I would call them criminal organisations, used at these festivals,” she said.

“If you’re going to investigate Brigade Nhamedu, you should also investigate what the paramilitary organisation Eri-Blood is doing here.

“Is it a criminal organisation? Does it have implications for the rule of law, is it undermining democratic rights? And ask fundamental questions about how a hit squad like that functions.

“Given the routine infiltration of the diaspora, although this is highly speculative, it’s possible that they posed as Brigade Nhamedu in order to focus attention on Brigade Nhamedu.”

Diaspora

There are more than 26,000 Eritreans living in the Netherlands, out of a worldwide dispora of half a million, and around 4,000 have claimed asylum in the last two years.

The vast majority are granted refugee status, but those who are refused are often unable to return because the Eritrean government refuses to give them passports. The Netherlands does not co-operate with Isaias’s regime because of its human rights record.

“This is not a time when people from the Horn of Africa should be being sent back home,” said Laetitia Bader, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “The threat of persecution remains very real.”

Military service

Young Eritreans usually flee the country to avoid military service, which everyone aged between 18 to 50 is obliged to perform. Officially the service period is 18 months, but in practice it can last more than a decade.

Educated Eritreans are conscripted into “civil service”: compulsory public sector jobs in government offices or teaching, which has been condemned by the United Nations as a form of forced labour.

But the Eritrean expat community also includes supporters of the dictatorship who fled during the war with Ethiopia in the 1990s and settled in Europe. They are generally better integrated into Dutch society and have more established social networks than their younger peers.

Eritrea’s government tolerates no dissent either at home or abroad. Expats are expected to pay a 2% tax to the government at home and denied consular services, such as the issuing of passports and birth certificates, if they refuse.

Warnings

The Netherlands has repeatedly warned Eritrea about the tax and other means extortion. In 2017 a majority of MPs called for the embassy in The Hague to be closed after television current affairs show Argos highlighted the practice.

During the Covid lockdown foreign affairs minister Stef Blok summoned the ambassador to explain why Eritrean citizens had been ordered to donate at least €100 to fund the government’s pandemic control measures.

The prosecution service also opened an investigation and wrote to Eritrean citizens advising them that Dutch law forbids demanding money under duress.

Van Reisen says the Netherlands should follow the lead of Norway and Canada and introduce legislation in parliament to prevent cross-border repression.

“We live in a sovereign country where everyone from left to right enjoys the same freedoms,” she said. “I want to see an investigation that focuses on whether this festival was a form of intervention by a foreign state, how it took place and who the protagonists were.

“It’s part and parcel of protecting our constitutional framework so that people don’t need to resort to violence to make their point.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 February 2024 18:51