An Eritrean who had been deported from Malta in late 2002 was on his return beaten, tied in the "helicopter" position and tortured in groups of 10 to 15, according to a report being published by Amnesty International today.

The report, Eritrea: You Have No Right To Ask, claims that the 220 Eritreans deported from Malta in September and October 2002 were among those who faced torture and punishment on their return.

Women, children and those over the conscription age limit of 40 were released after some weeks in Adi Abeto prison. But the rest of the Malta deportees - mostly army deserters - were kept in "incommunicado detention and torture", according to the 47-page report.

At the time, the Maltese government had said it had not been aware of any mistreatment of the illegal immigrants on their return to Eritrea. Of those repatriated, 170 had not applied for refugee status.

Amnesty claimed prisoners were tortured as the standard punishment for evading or escaping conscription or for a military offence or while being interrogated about suspected alleged political opposition.

It said the Eritrean government was resisting scrutiny on human rights and those objecting to the government had to endure torture methods with nicknames such as "the helicopter", "Jesus Christ" (a position resembling crucifixion) and "number eight".

The report is built on the narrations of several inmates and their alleged harrowing experiences.

Amnesty said the deportees were detained on arrival at the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. They were then taken to the nearby Adi Abeto military detention centre.

Some 180 of them were kept in detention and tortured over a period of two-and-a-half months. Some tried to escape but were recaptured; three were shot, with one man dying from his wounds.

In December 2002, all remaining detainees were transferred to a secret detention centre on the main Dahlak Island in the Red Sea, where they were subjected to forced labour.

Some were moved to secret mainland prisons in July 2003, from which several later escaped across the Sudan border.

Robel Goniche, a young man from Asmara who was deported from Malta and detained at Adi Abeto prison, was shot at the edge of the compound trying to escape and later died, according to another detainee deported with him from Malta.

"All 27 who tried to escape with him were badly beaten, flat on the ground, until some were bleeding from the head with teeth and lips cut. One had an arm broken, which never healed straight, and another had his leg cut with a bayonet," the report claims.

Another deportee from Malta spoke of his detention in Adi Abeto prison: "We were beaten and mostly were tied in the 'helicopter' position and tortured in groups of 10 to 15. We were tied up day and night, except for three short food and toilet breaks. I was tied up for two weeks. One of us got very ill with bronchitis and there was no medical treatment... Some got paralysed in the arms and legs".

Ermias - detained in Dahlak Kebir Island, a returnee from Germany - escaped twice.

In his second escape attempt he was caught trying to get a boat out of the island. Ten guards surrounded him and two other captured escapees, including Habtom Tekleab, an ex-Malta deportee.

"They beat them in front of us until they were vomiting blood. They tied them in 'helicopter' method for 55 days outside in the heat. Ermias' skin colour changed, his body swelled and he couldn't walk. For the first two days he was refused food but the prisoners fed him. I don't know if he is still alive," a former Dahlak Kebir island detainee was reported as saying.

An ex-Malta deportee and former detainee in Haddis Ma'askar army prison near Sawa had this harrowing story to tell: "After seven months in Dahlak Kebir Island, in July 2003 we were taken to the mainland in small groups and to different prisons.

"I was sent to Haddis Ma'askar. We were kept in handcuffs. I was held in a 2x2 metre underground cell holding myself and another prisoner. It was very hot, with no light and we had no shoes.

"There were about 1,000 prisoners there, some in big cells holding 200. The building was completely underground, fairly recently built. Prisoners were there for different offences - deserting from the army, spying for Ethiopia, etc.

"We were occasionally taken to work - fetching firewood, for example. We had to perform toilet functions in the fields around. Other prisoners were told we were 'Jihad' (armed Islamists) and they did not know we had come from Malta. I escaped with another prisoner during a toilet break and reached the Sudan border after three days."

Walta Haile, another ex-Malta deportee who had been tortured, tried to commit suicide at Massawa by tying his own hands and jumping into the sea last December.

"He got caught in the ship's propeller and his face was badly cut. He was taken out of the sea and we didn't hear of him again, maybe he died," a former inmate claims.

Another spoke of his experience as he was shuttled out of Malta.

"That night at 3 a.m., we were woken up, handcuffed, and taken to the airport - some even without their shoes. There were two Maltese special force soldiers to each prisoner, holding our arms.

"Some of us were crying but the soldiers were laughing and joking in their language," he claimed.

When they landed at Asmara, the airport was quiet and there were no relatives to meet them.

When the Maltese aircraft left, the soldiers took them in a military bus to Adi Abeto prison. The women, girls and children were separated. There were interrogation rooms and we were called one at a time, with two guards, one asking the questions, the other doing the beating, he claimed.

"There were plainclothes security officers at the airport and they took us to a reception area when the plane returned to Malta. Then soldiers came and put us on buses and took us to Adi Abeto. Our relatives didn't know about us or our returning to Eritrea and there were none at the airport."

"Three women - deported from Malta in advanced pregnancy - gave birth at Adi Abeto prison but they were not even given blankets. They were not held there for long but we don't know what happened to them.

"The rest of us all had interrogations and beatings and torture. We were asked why we had left Eritrea, why we had spoken against the government and we were beaten with leather and rubber whips if we denied their accusations."

In response to Amnesty International's concern at the time of the deportations, the Maltese government had said it was "not in possession of any evidence that any ill-treatment was afforded to the Eritreans repatriated from Malta" and that the Eritrean Director for Refugees "was reported to have rejected any allegations of ill-treatment".

The London-based group Eritreans for Human and Democratic Rights had said at the time that the Home Affairs Ministry was wrong to believe that the Eritreans sent back home were not under threat.

EHDR-UK executive director Dawit Mesfin had said the government had "misjudged the whole event and ended the hopes of freedom-seeking Eritreans unreasonably".

The report goes on to mention that the Maltese authorities were heavily criticised for their treatment of the Eritreans and other migrants and asylum-seekers, at a time when Malta was applying to join the EU and, therefore, expected to comply with asylum standards and establish refugee status determination procedures more in line with international standards.

Since then, however, the government has taken several steps to soften its stance towards illegal immigrants.

In December 2003, most of the remaining Eritrean asylum-seekers were taken to a non-custodial hostel. The rest were released in February 2004 and resettlement is being considered for all 105 Eritrean asylum seekers still in Malta.

More Eritreans arrived in Malta in April after encountering difficulties at sea.

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