After six months of under-table tripartite diplomatic wrangling among Eritrea, UK and Australia over the request of the four British citizens (one of them with a dual UK and Australian citizenship), the Eritrean government has

After six months of under-table tripartite diplomatic wrangling among Eritrea, UK and Australia over the request of the four British citizens (one of them with a dual UK and Australian citizenship), the Eritrean government has held a TV trial this week, with footage, snipers, night goggles and GPS confiscated from the detainees casted as exhibits of evidence.
Read More Even though no clear motives were provided in the press release which at the same time sounds like more a court complaint, the government accused the four Britons of espionage, incursion and terrorism. The press release also pointed out that the four Britons have confessed to their crimes and admitted guilt. Logically, the next press conference is expected to carry the verdict.

Now the verdict is going to be easy to predict if one can fully lay bare everything that has transpired so far. Details are still murky as both UK and Protection Vessels International (PVI), the employer of the detainees, seem focused on securing the release of the four men, instead of going into a full-blown defense and PR exercise. PVI has apologized and admitted to, not wrong doing as such, but that its four employees had mishandled the situation.

If all the charges and statements that were read in the TV court are presumed to be true and accurate, then two questions remain to be mind-boggling. First, what exactly was PVI doing in Eritrea’s water and land as a for profit company? Were the detainees really up to some illegal activity?

In the ideal world, it is only an independent court which is established on a foundation of fair and mature judicial system that can pass judgment answer this question. In a country where tens of hundreds of its own citizens are languishing in mysterious jails for over a decade is not expected to deliver justice to the 4 Britons. Even though there is a slim possibility that the Eritrean Regime could attempt to do this prompted by the weight of who these detainees are (citizens of a powerful Western nation with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council), it would, however, no be less than a mockery of justice. In the meantime and the absence of a court, we all try to fill the vacuum by using our deductive power to reach at the truth.

According to the press release, the four Britons might not have been even caught, had they not tried to flee without paying and obtaining proper immigration clearance. In fact, the statement contradicted Thomas Mountain, PFDJ’s western propagandist nicknamed as the Asmara Cactus, who earlier wrote on Foreign Journal magazine that the “plot” has been accidentally discovered by a woman who ran into them while they were taking pictures. Having heard the charges alleged by the government of Eritrea against the four Britons, one finds it difficult to fathom how these seamen who came off shore to the Port of Massawa, presumably to resupply food and fuel after “facing rough waters” as claimed, try to flee without paying their bills. Normally, missions of such magnitude which require utmost fastidiousness and care, especially if it was orchestrated by big owners like the UK, are expected to be planned in details and money will be at the center piece of buying its way to success.

This is not by any means to hypothetically say that they did not do that. In fact if they did try to flee without paying their bills, then chances are that they were not professionals with a mission worth the allegation. Again, for the sake of this argument, however, let us assume that the charges laid by the government are correct and true in its entirety. But if they were in a clandestine infiltration with the view to conducting espionage, as the government of Eritrea alleged, then they must extremely luck the skill the task requires. Taking the fact that they were members of the Royal Navy, one of the most competent amphibious forces in the world, as well as the extreme care and planning such a mission would entail, it would be extremely difficult to believe that they would be caught within three miles of in their attempt to flee, without trying to fight and overpower a navy of a third world country.  As is the norm in a court of law, one can agree with the bizarreness of the incident but, in the government’s defense, argue that there could be details, factors and scenarios that we are not aware about at this moment and might have forced them to flee unusually like it was alleged. With all those factors in the equation, however, it still shows the flaw in planning and stupidity of the perpetrators and their dispatchers to a level below the accusers little sophistications. Considering the background of the “suspects” and the level of development of their nation, this is empirically less likely to have occurred. Hence, the logic of probability trims the chance to a little more than zero, making believing the government’s allegations difficult to say the least.

Habitually and with intent to ruling with propaganda, the government of Eritrea, like any autocratic regimes both contemporary and before it, is well known for mastering and resorting to showing confession clips of its real and imagined opponents. One can safely bet that 60 percent of all interviews the government controlled TV airs are confessions and guilt admissions. With no respite, it has, for instance, aired hundreds of hours of prisoners of war confessions for the entire three years during which the Eritro-Ethiopian “border conflict” stayed. Besides, journalists and other citizens have been TV paraded with a view to either curbing dissent by instilling fear or controlling social behavior. One cannot help but wonder how it resisted and won the temptation of showing footages of confessions and admission of guilt by the alleged “suspects” unless there is none.

The allegations are so full of holes that the questions that can be raised are as many as the sentences of the press release. So why do the four Britons want to physically go to Massawa for espionage?  What is to be spied there that cannot be done from the sky?

There is no doubt that, in this highly digitalized world, collecting a physical data, following movements and monitoring aspect changes is much less easier done tens of thousands of miles above than on the ground. These days, the only time one needs people physically on the ground has become either when you are escorting your own asset or targeting individuals. In an era of satellite and drones, why would one send speed boats to a port city with a navy base? What would these four British men who don’t speak local languages expected to accomplish within days in a city of strangers? Who were they targeting? Did they confess about anything regarding targeting any High Value Target? Common sense defies believing the charges in their raw state.

Everything considered, however, it appears that the people and the company that hired them have committed some transgressions that gave the Eritrean government the opportunity to call foul. Besides, the government thought that this is a prize that would help it balance its morale and diplomatic deficit.

It looks like the detained UK citizens knew that the Eritrean navy is incapable of guarding its coast and deliberately considered the island of Romie as a no-man’s land. Had the speed not been ceased in Massawa, the Eritrean government would have no clue that they were using the island. It is equally difficult to assume that PIV and its employee didn’t know who the island belongs to. Why they wanted the small island and how beneficial it can be to their vessel protection mission is unclear. PVI’s reluctance to put its version of the story to the public, however, has most likely to do with the full realization of its transgression. Its apology and use of the word “mishandling” further reinforces this assumption.

That aside, whatever they were doing wrong, however, doesn’t make the Eritrean government any better moralistically and diplomatically. In fact, it looks like it is yet another slippery diplomatic slop it is sliding dangerously.  At the beginning, the government seems to have thought that its forces accidentally uncovered a conspiracy to assassinate the President.  Later on, however, the government must have come to realize that the case is, if any, a minor a transgression  by a contractor company but quickly changed gears to calculate, miscalculated rather, on how to play the UK fool. Instead of playing it diplomatically smart by allowing the detainees to receive consular service as is the norm and requested by Britain, it instead went into stubborn refusal. The reason why the Eritrean government did this is primarily psychological.

In consideration of all public and diplomatic stands the UK took so far against the Eritrean government, including support for sanction, this incident has given Issias the feeling that Britain is now in his palm to squeeze. The longer they diplomatically beg him, the more egoistic gratification he gets, deliberately dragging it unable to reach a climax. For him, this has been a goal by itself.

Nevertheless, what Issias always misses is that the longer he stays stubborn, the angrier the other party gets or, in other instances, opportunities slip out of his hands. There are ample examples that can support this as a pattern. When the US-Rwandan proposal was presented to him during the Eritro-Ethiopian border conflict, he refused to accept it not because he had other goals in plan that he had been aiming at but enjoyed the fact that he was being begged. As we have all witnessed, it took two rounds of military defeat to accept a deal worse than this proposal.. Similarly, when he was going to Somalia, he was thought the US would scramble and appease him in a bid to stop as well.  What he instead has achieved, however, is sanction after which he is slowly pulling his hands back.

Will the UK appease him? All signs indicate that it will not. The recent TV trial should, therefore, be viewed as the preview of the release of the detainees. This is also a face-saving drama for the upcoming closure of the issue. Chances are a couple of press releases later, the pardon will follow. And, honestly, that is a win-win situation for all the parties involved. As to the PVI, they owe the Eritrean and British people explanations.


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