Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 14:30 UK

Eritrea becoming 'a giant prison'

A soldier on sentry duty at Eritrea-Ethiopia border
Eritrea is accused of using a border dispute to justify endless conscription

The Eritrean government is turning its country into a giant prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Horn of Africa nation is widely using military conscription without end, as well as arbitrary detention of its citizens, says HRW.

Hundreds of Eritrean refugees forcibly repatriated from countries like Libya, Egypt and Malta face arrest and torture upon their return, says the group.

Religious persecution and forced labour are also rife in Eritrea, says HRW.


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The report urges countries not to send back Eritrean asylum-seekers and calls on the international community and donors to exert pressure on the government in Asmara over its rights record.

HRW says every year thousands of Eritreans flee their country, where statutory national service, which used to last 18 months, has been made indefinite.

The advocacy group says most of Eritrea's adult population is currently conscripted.

Sixteen years after it won independence from Ethiopia following a three-decade war, Eritrea is one of the most closed and repressive states in the world, says the report.

It accuses President Isayas Afewerki of using an unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia to keep Eritrea on a permanent war-footing.

HRW says there is no independent civil society and all independent media outlets have been shut down.

People under the age of 50 are rarely granted visas to leave the country and those who try to do so without documentation face imprisonment and torture or being shot at the border, says the group.

Prisoners are often held in underground cells or in shipping containers with dangerously high temperatures, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Christians are being rounded up and tortured on a regular basis, says the group.

The BBC's Pascale Harter spoke to Salamay, a 16-year-old Eritrean refugee in Italy.

She said she fled when police began rounding up youths in her village for national service.

In Sudan, she said a family took her hostage and forced her to work without pay.

In Libya, she was taken to a prison where inmates faced rape every night by the guards.

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