Dismissing criticism, Eritrea hails 25 years of 'freedom'
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Dismissing criticism, Eritrea hails 25 years of 'freedom'

Posted AFP

on  Tuesday, May 24  2016 at  15:51

Eritrea celebrated 25 years of independence on Tuesday with street parties, giant fireworks displays and music, shrugging off international criticism that the government has stifled basic freedoms.

In the run up to the celebrations, an "independence torch" was carried across the country, with the party kicking off over the weekend with camel races, military parades, cultural events and artistic displays, the state-run EriTV broadcaster showed.

Reports in the local media said the celebrations offered "vivid demonstrations of the prevailing peace and stability" in a country which ranks below North Korea as worst in the world for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But on the eve of independence celebrations, the UN's Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, said the country had been in a "constitutional vacuum" since 1997, and called on Eritrea to "fully embrace democracy and the rule of law to achieve the vision established" at independence.

The hardline regime is accused of jailing thousands of political prisoners while refugees from the repressive Red Sea state have in recent years made up one of the largest contingents of people risking the dangerous journey to seek a new life in Europe.

"National independence should match with individual independence and freedoms: freedom of conscience, thought, mind and expression; freedom to engage in employment and education of one's own choice," Keetharuth said.

Resilience and development

Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1991 after a three-decade independence war, which saw Eritrean rebels battling far better-equipped Ethiopian troops which were backed first by Washington and then by the Soviet Union.

Victory in May 1991 was followed by a referendum two years later.

But independence for Eritrea meant Ethiopia lost direct access to the Red Sea, fuelling resentment from Addis Ababa.

A subsequent 1998-2000 border conflict between the two countries still rankles, with analysts saying Asmara uses as an excuse for its continued iron-fisted rule.

President Isaias Afwerki, 70, who led the rebel army to victory and has remained in power without an election ever since, is expected to address the nation at a military rally later on Tuesday.

Tales of war sacrifices are used to boost patriotism and flagging morale under persistent economic and social hardships which are blamed on the long-running "no-war no-peace" border stalemate with Ethiopia.

A "quarter century of resilience and development" read a headline in the Eritrea Profile newspaper this week.

A mixed report card

"I call on the government to do more to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and to establish the rule of law," Keetharuth said in a statement released in Geneva.

"I salute the heroism and courage of all those women and men who struggled for their freedom and fought for their country's independence. I also acknowledge the determination of those who are still engaged in preserving such hard-won freedom."

Troops still eyeball each other along the frontier, with Ethiopian soldiers defying an international ruling that they should leave Eritrean land.

Those who escape Eritrea describe crawling under razor wire, tiptoeing across minefields or sneaking past armed border guards in their bid for freedom.

Exiled opposition Eritrean activists produced a video released to coincide with independence celebrations, speaking out about repression in the country and explaining why they fled.

"What do we have to celebrate in a country, where if you speak against the regime you could be imprisoned?" read the article on the opposition Asmarino website.

In the past, entire Eritrean football teams have absconded while playing in tournaments abroad and fighter jet pilots have escaped in their aircraft.