An Eritrean refugee holds his child at Sudan's Shagarab refugee camp in Kassala on January 12, 2012
Geneva (AFP) - Eritrea's government is responsible for systematic and widespread human rights abuses on an almost unprecedented scale, driving some 5,000 Eritreans to flee every month, a UN investigation said Monday.
Wrapping up a year-long probe, a UN commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Eritrea described a nightmare-like society in the authoritarian Horn of Africa state.
The report detailed horrific torture, including electric shock, near drowning, sexual abuse and forcing people to stare at the burning sun for hours.
Its nearly 500-page report details how the country, under Isaias Afwerki's iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested at whim, detained, tortured, killed or go missing.
A system of indefinite conscription of all Eritreans also forces many to toil in slave-like conditions in the military and other state jobs, sometimes for decades.
"Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea with impunity under the authority of the government," said Sheila Keetharuth, one of the three commission members.
The report found that some of the numerous abuses committed in Eritrea "may constitute crimes against humanity", she told journalists, pointing out that the violations were taking place on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere".
The report provides a list of government and state entities responsible for the abuse, including the military, police, justice ministry and Isaias himself.
- Mass exodus -
The situation has sparked a massive exodus from Eritrea, which after Syria is the second largest source of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, is "ruled not by law but by fear," Keetharuth said.
That, she said, is the main reason why "hundreds of thousands are fleeing their country, risking capture and torture by Eritrean authorities and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers."
The report said some 5,000 people were flooding out of the country each month, despite a "shoot-to-kill" policy along the borders, adding to the nearly 360,000 Eritrean refugees counted by the UN last year.
The investigators urged the international community to protect fleeing Eritreans, to make their migration routes safer and, above all, to not send them back.
They described an Orwellian mass-surveillance society, where neighbours and family members are drafted to inform on each other, and where people can be held for years in horrific conditions without ever knowing what crime they allegedly committed.
"When I am in Eritrea, I feel that I cannot even think because I am afraid that people can read my thoughts," one witness was quoted as saying.
The probe was ordered by the UN Human Rights Council last year, and the investigators will present their findings to the body on June 23.
They never gained access to Eritrea, but said they instead based their report on 550 interviews with Eritreans living abroad, and on 160 written submissions.
- Sexual slavery -
Convincing expat Eritreans to testify was meanwhile difficult, due to Eritrea's extensive network of spies even outside the country, and fear of reprisals against family members back home.
That fear is justified, the report said, stressing "there is no rule of law in Eritrea."
The torture was so widespread that the report concluded "it is a policy of the government to encourage its use," it concluded.
The investigators also found that Eritrea's economy is largely dependent on widespread forced labour, especially using people stuck in indefinite conscription.
Women recruits meanwhile are routinely subjected to "sexual slavery", the report found.
"I was ordered to bring girls to commanders’ rooms. They would give me their names and I would go and collect them," a personal assistant to an official at the Wi'a training camp told the investigators.
He said he would bring one or two girls a day, and that over a three year period, he had brought around 1,200 girls to the officers.