Police in Geneva guard U.N. investigators into Eritrea's human rights after threats

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2015 1:31 PM

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - Swiss police were guarding three U.N. investigators into Eritrea's human rights record in Geneva on Wednesday after a top official said they had received threats on the street and at their hotel.

The inquiry's report published earlier this month showed human rights violations in Eritrea that may amount to crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings, widespread torture and enforced labor.

At the start of the commission's two-day testimony before the Geneva-based council on Tuesday, its president Joachim Ruecker told the session that investigators had been subjected to "various threats and acts of intimidation in their hotel and in the streets since their arrival in Geneva".

He did not give details but said security had been redoubled, the Swiss police had been contacted and security measures had been taken to ensure the council meeting could go on "with calm and dignity".

A Reuters witness saw Swiss police guarding the team even though the meeting was held within the United Nations compound in Geneva.

One member of the commission, Sheila Keetharuth, said the threats were "specific" but declined to give details.

Mike Smith, who led the inquiry, said the Eritrean government had a choice between carrying out meaningful political reform or further U.N. scrutiny that could lead to it being referred to the International Criminal Court.

"The government must understand that the system that they have set up is simply unacceptable in the modern world," Smith said.

Eritrea, one of the poorest countries in Africa, declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993. An exodus of Eritreans fleeing to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean is widely blamed on the harsh conditions in the country.

The U.N. inquiry, constrained by its terms of reference, stopped short of declaring whether Eritrea's government was committing crimes against humanity but recommended this be examined further, so that a decision could be taken about whether to refer the case to the ICC.

Eritrea's neighbors Djibouti and Somalia are backing a Human Rights Council resolution to extend the team's mandate for a year to enable it to say if crimes against humanity were committed and to ensure "full accountability".

Eritrea has not cooperated with the investigators nor let them into the country. It has tried to discredit the methodology and motives of the report but has not shown any contrary evidence, Smith said.

Its ambassador Tesfamicael Gerahtu was upbraided by Ruecker for telling the council that the commission was "ignorant", that it had "a sinister political agenda" and that their report - based on 550 interviews and 160 written statements - was "a travesty of justice".

(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)