The government of Eritrea has imprisoned Ciham Ali Abdu since December 8, 2012. The then 15-year-old was imprisoned for attempting to flee Eritrea trying to cross the border into Sudan. According to Human Rights Watch, Cihams story is unique as she is a United States citizen born in Los Angeles, CA, and relocated to Asmara, Eritrea. She is being held in incommunicado detention; this means no one has seen or had communication with her in more than eight years.
Ciham’s family moved to Asmara, Eritrea, so that her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, could take up a position in the government under President Isaias Afewerki. Ali eventually served as the country’s information minister; however, he fled the country in 2012 seeking asylum as Isaias Afwerki’s regime became increasingly autocratic, explained by CNN. After her father escaped, he planned to have smugglers arrange to get his daughter out of the country because he feared retaliation from the regime for his defection or that she would face indefinite conscription.
The North Korea of Africa
Though Ciham’s attempt to leave Eritrea was more from fear of retaliation for her father’s escape, many others have tried to escape the harsh sentence of conscription before coming of age. Human Rights Watch reported, “Abuse in [Eritrean] national service is rampant and is the principal reason why thousands flee the country annually[…] Service lasts over a decade, although the proclamation establishing national service limits conscription to 18 months[…]” Conscripts are subjected to 72-hour workweeks, severe, arbitrary punishment, rape by commanders if female, and grossly inadequate food rations. A UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 described this system as enslavement.
[CNN] Eritrea is the most censored country in the world, often labeled as the North Korea of Africa, has never had a national election; free press does not exist, and citizens are not allowed to leave without an exit visa granted by the government. Felix Horne, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, “[…] By holding Ciham Ali incommunicado from the age of 15, the government has effectively disappeared her.
In a statement provided to Ciham’s uncle, Saleh Younis, her parents describe their daughter’s memories, “She was so caring and compassionate[…] Her dream was to be a world-renowned designer.” They wrote, “She loved reggae music and was a great swimmer who loved to paint and spoke fluent English and Italian.” Younis told CNN, “Every time we have tried to find out where she is, the consistent message is: her case is being personally handled by the President, and nobody knows anything about it. She just disappeared.” Ciham holds dual citizenship; however, no information has been provided to U.S. officials on her whereabouts or condition. Eritrea does not acknowledge her U.S. citizenship. She remains in prison without being charged or tried for any crime.
One Day Seyoum’s Campaign for Ciham’s Freedom
Campaigners from the Eritrean diaspora group One Day Seyoum and Amnesty International launched the #FreeCiham social media campaign during Cihams birthday month of April to raise awareness of her plight. The two organizations also hosted a live birthday tribute via Facebook on April 15, where Cihams uncle, family, friends, and supporters shared their memories of Ciham and memorable performances in her name. As Ciham spent yet another birthday (April 3rd) behind bars, the goal is to pressure US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to intervene in her case and demand her immediate release.
You can still participate in the Twitter campaign by using One Day Seyoum’s Twitter tool kit. There you will find links to suggested tweets, high-resolution images shared from ODS’s public facing google drive folder, and an upcoming video documentary of Ciham’s life. You can also participate by joining One Day Seyoums Ciham Lobbying Group, which coordinates to send out regular emails with tasks you can take to apply pressure on the US government.
This short documentary, produced by One Day Seyoum, called My Sister Ciham, tells her story through the words of her loved ones and others fighting for her freedom, explaining what happened to her and what needs to be done to secure her release.
Their plan is simple: anyone can host a screening to share her story with more people. They will be targeting politicians throughout the tour, focusing on one at a time until politicians respond. The more people who organize and attend screenings, the bigger and more powerful the movement to free her.
You can organize a screening in your community, on your campus, or at your workplace during your lunch break (it’s only 10 minutes). When you sign up for a screening package, you’ll receive all the necessary information to host your screening.
Click on the #FreeCiham Campaign Toolkit below to find ways to stay involved with Cihams case beyond the social media campaign. Additionally, you can use our Find Your Reps tool to find your elected representatives across the United States to reach out and advocate on Cihams behalf.