A ship captain, Mohammed Esmat AlHlaisi, who has been detained in Eritrea since February and accused of being a CIA agent, was returned to his home country after Egypt agreed to Eritrea’s request to deport back four Eritrean asylum-seekers, according to Al Wafd newspaper.
What follows below is largely sourced from Al Wafd:
Mohammed Al Hlaisi, 26, captained a commercial ship owned by Alaska, an English company. In February, he made an emergency stop in Massawa to repair his ship’s faulty tank.
February is the month that “Operation Fenkel”, the military campaign that liberated the port city from Ethiopia in 1990, is celebrated in Massawa every year.
The captain was strolling the streets of Massawa when Eritrean intelligence officials picked him up and escorted him to his ship, which they searched. He, and his crew of 12 (Cubans and Filipinos), were told to remain in the ship which they did–for four months, until the captain was taken to Ghindae, a town between Massawa and the capital, for detention.
Eritrean authorities interrogated him for four months and demanded that he admit that he was CIA operative laying mines in the Red Sea which had killed Eritrean soldiers. He was required to confess to this crime in writing and on camera. Captain Al Hlaisi says, “I requested the presence of the Egyptian Ambassador and told them I will not sign such an admission even if you cut me to pieces.” He was informed that he had been sentenced to twenty years in jail.
Captain Al Hlaisi went on a hunger strike and was rushed to “INAIL” hospital in Asmara where authorities denied the Egyptian ambassador to Eritrea access to visit him. But he was visited by Eritrea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who informed him that he should give up his hunger strike since negotiations are underway with the Egyptian government for his release.
He was returned to Ghindae, where he remained until October 10, 2012 when he was released. Back in Egypt, government officials showed him the paperwork which indicated that he had been traded for Eritreans who had asked for asylum and had now been deported. Reportedly, the involvement of Egyptian president Mursi was required for this exchange.
The names of the four Eritreans who were traded for the Egyptian captain has not been disclosed. Nor have any of the international or Eritrean human rights organizations, who have repeatedly warned Egypt against deporting Eritrean asylum-seekers to Eritrea, reported the deportation of the Eritreans.
On December 24, 2010, four Britons employed by Protection Vessels International (PVI) were arrested in Massawa and subsequently accused of espionage, terrorism and using the island of Romia as an arms depot. In a TV documentary outlining the charges, the government showed laser guided peripherals as “poison tipped arrows.” Unofficially, the Eritrean regime informed Thomas Mountain, the only Western “journalist” allowed to work in Eritrea, that the Brits were in Eritrea to assassinate Eritrean officials on Operation Fenkel celebrations of February. The Brits were “pardoned” and released after six months.
The Eritrean Government has many such crisis and it has detained many Yemeni and Egyptian boats and ships starting from the first weeks after independence when it detained over a dozen Egyptian fishermen and refused to give information about them or allow their relatives to visit them.
Such arrests finally led to a clash with Yemen over the Hanish Archipelago in 1995.