Eritrea frees 28 Jehovah's Witnesses prisoners, group says

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Eritrea has released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses group after they served prison terms of up to 26 years, the Christian denomination said in a statement seen by Reuters on Monday.

In 1994 Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a decree revoking citizenship for members of the group for reasons including their conscientous objection to military service. Eritrea has maintained conscription for more than 20 years.

Since that decree, Jehovah’s Witnesses members have been subjected to detentions, torture and harassment in Eritrea, in part to compel them to renounce their faith, according to the group and international human rights organisations.

In its statement, the Jehovah’s Witnesses said 28 of its members incarcerated in Eritrea were freed on Dec. 4 after serving sentences of ranging from five to 26 years. Another 24 remain in prison, it said.

“Eritrea arrests and imprisons Jehovah’s Witnesses and others without trial or formal charges. Several of those jailed are male Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service,” the statement said.

“However, the majority - including women and the elderly - are imprisoned for religious activity or undisclosed reasons.”

Last year Human Rights Watch accused Eritrea of continuing to force thousands of students and teachers into indefinite military service, frustrating hopes that a 2018 peace deal with former arch-enemy Ethiopia might lead to the end or scaling back of Asmara’s conscription policy. Asmara’s government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment at the time.

Eritrea, a secretive, highly militarised nation, has been ruled by Afwerki since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also known for their door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of blood transfusions.

Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Mark Heinrich