"You will receive no visitors and you will rot here until you sign this paper."
Those are the reported words of an Eritrean military commander to Helen Berhane, aged 31, a well known gospel singer of the Rema Church, one of the several minority churches not officially recognized by the State of Eritrea.
Helen Berhane remained locked up, without charge or trial, for two and a half years, most of the time in a metal shipping container that alternates between hot and cold temperature extremes, with no washing or toilet facilities. She was beaten up and tortured to make her recant her faith. In October 2006, she was admitted to hospital as a result of new beatings, then eventually released thanks to major international campaigns in her favour. Today, she is said to be confined to a wheelchair due to the injuries she sustained to her feet and legs.
The singer was among 2,000 detained members of banned evangelical churches in Eritrea, including about 20 pastors, even though freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Eritrean Constitution. In 2002, President Issayas Afewerki’s government, which has been in power since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991, suddenly ordered all unregistered religions to close their places of worship and stop practising their faith. To this day, only four main religions are officially recognised : the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches and Islam.
Those arrested for their religious beliefs are detained incommunicado in harsh conditions without charge or trial, in army camps or security prisons. Some are held in metal shipping containers, like Helen Berhane, others in underground prisons. Several detainees have become seriously ill and are deprived of adequate medical treatment. The prisoners are repeatedly tortured, beaten and tied up in painful positions.
In October 2006, two Christian men, Immanuel Andegergesh and Kibrom Firemichael, arrested for taking part in Christian worship in a private home, reportedly died as a result of torture to make them abandon their faith.
Among the people currently detained for their religious beliefs, a majority are evangelical church members, but dozens of Muslims are also imprisoned for the same reasons. All are routinely denied access to family, friends or lawyers.