Wednesday July 11, 2007
Eritrea has arrested the acting head of the British Council in the capital, Asmara, and refused a British diplomat permission to leave the country following a row over a satellite internet link.
The British Council employee, an Eritrean national, has been in jail for a week, and embassy staff are extremely concerned for his wellbeing. Eritrea, seen by many as Africa's most repressive state, regularly imprisons its citizens for lengthy periods in harsh conditions and without access to legal representation.
The diplomat is normally resident in Ethiopia, Eritrea's neighbour and foe. He has been prevented from flying home on at least one occasion since the incident. The British Council and Foreign Office have confirmed the arrest and travel restriction but declined to name the men involved.
Eritrea's action stems from plans by the British Council to install a satellite internet link as part of a huge programme to connect its offices worldwide. The Eritrean authorities rarely allow organisations - local or foreign - to use secure satellite connections, insisting that they use local service providers connected to the government.
Ten days ago a British Council employee involved in the proposed internet upgrade was arrested and then released, only for the acting head of the council to be detained in his place. The diplomat was also working on the project.
"We are concerned that a member of our staff is being held by the Eritrean authorities," said a British Council spokesman in London. "We have not been informed of the reason for their arrest but believe it is the result of a simple misunderstanding."
Ali Abdu, Eritrea's information minister, could not be reached for comment.
Eritrea, which accuses rich nations of siding with Ethiopia in a dispute over the countries' mutual border, has been making life increasingly difficult for western diplomats over the past year. All embassy staff now need to apply for permission 10 days in advance if they wish to travel outside the capital.
The US, a strong ally of Ethiopia, has come in for particular scrutiny. Its embassy in Asmara suspended public services in February after government officials insisted on inspecting its diplomatic pouches.