By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
February 3, 2013 (MEKELLE, ETHIOPIA) - Thousands of Eritrean refugees held a demonstration on Saturday at a camp in northern Ethiopia in support of the actions taken by a dissident army group to bring about democratic change in one of the most repressive nations on earth.
On 21 January, some 200 Eritrean soldiers with two tanks stormed Eritrea’s ministry of information, taking control of the building for several hours before it was later retaken - without any violence - by troops loyal to the Eritrean president.
The mutineers forced the director general of the state radio and television agency to broadcast an appeal for the release of all political prisoners in Eritrea and calling for the immediate implementation of the 1997 constitution.
Between 2,000-3,000 Eritreans held the rally at Mai Aini refugee camp in the northern Tigray region bordering Eritrea.
The camp, which is the third in the region, was established in 2008 and currently has a population of about 20,000 Eritrean refugees. Ethiopia hosts more than 60,000 Eritrean refugees in at least five camps.
Eritrean refugees in other camps are also expected to stage similar demonstrations in the coming days, Sudan Tribune understands.
At least 1,000 Eritreans cross the border to Ethiopia every month, fleeing political repression, conscription, mandatory military service, arrests and intimidation threats by their own government.
Demonstrators this week echoed the same demands made by the mutineers, calling for the release of political prisoners and implementation of the constitution. They also chanted for the president and his inner circles to leave power.
The 66-year-old Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, has ruled the Red Sea nation for two decades since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in1993.
Organisers told Sudan Tribune that the demonstration was to show solidarity to the renegade soldiers in Eritrea who took “courageous action” during the siege at the ministry in Asmara late last month.
The refugees expressed their readiness to take part in the armed struggle along with Ethiopia-based rebels to topple the regime.
The move taken by the dissident army group has inspired exiled Eritreans across the world to step-up movements against the dictatorial regime in Asmara.
Thousands of Eritreans in the UK, Italy, Israel and many other European countries have staged similar demonstrations in support of the mutineers.
Last week in London over 2,000 Eritreans, including opposition politicians, held a demonstration calling for democratic change, in what was the second such protest to take place in the UK capital in recent weeks.
The Eritrean government considers any dissident as a traitor and warns any such acts will be taken as treason carrying a punishment by death.
Opposition groups in Addis Ababa on Sunday told Sudan Tribune that hundreds of dissenters have been disappeared, punished by death or jailed indefinitely by the Eritrean government under the pretext of treason charges.
Many more were also shot to death by border security guards while attempting to flee their homeland.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Red Sea nation, referred to by right groups as a “giant prison”, has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 political prisoners.
Opposition websites have reported that the Eritrean government has detained dozens of people, including regional governors and senior military officials in connection with the mutiny, however, there has been no official response from the government and getting any information from inside the country – sometimes referred to as Africa’s North Korea – is notoriously difficult.