(Reuters) – United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay accused on Monday gold-rich Eritrea, which holds a strategic stretch of the Red Sea coast, of carrying out torture and summary executions.
Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council there were between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners in the secretive African nation of some 6 million people which has been ruled by a single party and president since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
"The human rights situation in Eritrea is a matter of deep concern," said Pillay, a South African former senior judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, who has just had her four-year term extended for a further two years.
"Credible sources indicate that violations of human rights include arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions, forced labor, forced conscription, and restrictions to freedom of movement, expression, assembly and religion," she said.
Eritrea, where former anti-Ethiopia guerrilla leader Isaias Afewerki has been head of state for nearly two decades, is rarely mentioned in the 47-nation council, where African and Asian countries often work to shield each other from criticism.
But responding to Pillay's remarks on Monday, a European Union representative said the 27-nation grouping backed Pillay's comments on the Red Sea state — whose population is mainly Christian but includes a large Muslim minority.
Thousands of people have fled Eritrea in recent years because of poverty and political repression, according to human rights groups. Many have settled in neighboring Sudan, and some have reached Israel and Western Europe.
Independent human rights groups say the country has one of the world's most repressive governments, an accusation Eritrean officials reject, arguing that the country is the target of a foreign smear campaign backed by the United States.
Eritrea fought a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 which killed 70,000 people on the two sides and occasional clashes have flared up since with both accusing each other of supporting armed rebel groups.
In April, Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi Afewerki accused Eritrea of abducting dozens of miners from his country's north-western gold region which borders an area where Eritrea' largely untapped reserves of the precious metal are located.
Pillay told the rights council that she had written to the Eritrean government in January this year with an offer to send a mission from her office by this month at the latest to help it address its "human rights challenges."
But despite later talks with an Eritream delegation in Geneva, she said, there had so far been no reply.
(Reported by Robert Evans, editing by Diana Abdallah)