Justice demanded for Oxfam Novib/PEN Award winner Amanuel Asrat – a poem

writersunlimitted-1On January 20th 2016, in The Hague, a prestigious Oxfam Novib/PEN Award was awarded to Eritrean poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat. Amanuel Asrat was detained in Eritrea in 2001 and continues to be a victim of the totalitarian Eritrean regime. The Dutch newspaper Volkskrant and The Guardian in the UK have published comprehensive articles about the Awards event. As a most painful circumstance, the EU has yesterday signed a 200 million subsidy to the Eritrean dictatorship in the capital of Asmara, only 15 kilometers away from the place where Amanuel Asrat has presumably been kept prisoner under horrifying circumstances in the last 15 years.

During the ceremony, Eritrean born Dutch journalist Habtom Yohannes read a scorching poem for award winner Amanuel Asrat, which we publish below. One of the painful subjects that Habtom Yohannes puts forward in his poem, is that the EU has awarded a 200 million euro subsidy to Eritrea, known to be one of the most repressive countries in the world in terms of human rights and freedom of expression; worse than North-Korea, according to the Press Freedom Index. In June 2015 a United Nations panel accused ruling president Isaias Afwerki of “systematic and extreme abuses of the population, amounting to crimes against humanity”, as the Washington Post reported.

Poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat disappeared in Eritrea in 2001. The limited information available suggests that Asrat is detained in the maximum security prison, Eiraeiro, north of Asmara. The 200 million subsidy agreement with the EU was signed yesterday (28 January 2016) at Asmara, only 15 kilometers away from the location where Amanuel Asrat has presumably been imprisoned under horrifying conditions in the last 15 years.

Poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat is the most prominent of a group of journalists and writers who were arrested in 2001: Seyoum Tsehaye, Medhanie Haile, Fessahaye Yohannes, Idris Abu’Are and Dawit Habtemichael. In total at least 23 journalists are imprisoned in Eritrea without any legal justification, according to PEN data.

This is the poem that Habtom Yohannes read at the Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards, for award winner Amanuel Asrat, on January 20th 2016:


Dear Amanuel Asrat,

I don’t know whether you are alive or dead, tortured, dead, dead
Like our other colleagues, you were arrested in 2001
The year Oxfam Novib/Pen Award was established
Don’t ask me why it took them 15 years to award you

No, the name of the Award is not Amanuel Asrat Award, Triple-A
But I am given triple minutes to say thank you
I thank you, and the other prisoners of conscience
While the affluent world is consumed in silence
Like your prison cells, Pen-less and Award-less
Under the ground and in shipping containers

I don’t know if you have heard the news, Amanuel Asrat
The European Union, which gives subsidy direct or indirect
to Oxfam-Novib, Pen and other Western NGO’s –
The European Union just gave another Award
of more than 200 million euro’s to the one who arrested you
and your colleagues in 2001, the Eritrean dictator
Who broke your pen, your being, into ashes of disgrace?

They gave it without demanding your release or your whereabouts
Negotiating your release might endanger the strategic interests of the West
and certainly will anger the dictator
The West has opted to forget you except for the Awards
and has given you 3 minutes to say thank you for that

No Amanuel, Western Pen is not persecuted
It doesn’t form a threat anymore
It is absorbed into the circles of fame and power
I wish Amanuel and the other colleague’s release
And I wish Western Pen release from Tetraplegia Paralysis

Freedom of expression is not that cheap to use against dictators
It is very precious, it is freedom, it should shake self-acclaimed democracies
It is not an instrument for the protection of sovereignty or the voiceless
It is much bigger; it dares to criticize even the prisoners of conscience

Freedom in prison is much better than freedom that compromises
Visits sponsored galas subsidized clothes of books
I thank you for your patience; I mean our prisoners of conscience
If it was not for your courage Amanuel Asrat and your likes
I wouldn’t have stood here to speak for your silence
I thank your parents and siblings
And admire them for their perseverance

I wish Western Pen a recovery from its Tetraplegia Paralysis
And our prisoners of conscience
Release from any fear to continue to challenge power
Whether in politic’s opposition circles, sacred religions and houses of gods.