UN expert seeks Eritrea probe over 'crimes against humanity'

Geneva (AFP) - A UN expert on Wednesday called for a probe into whether the Eritrean government should face justice for alleged crimes against humanity following a damning report on sweeping rights violations.

The nearly 500-page UN report, released after a year of investigations, details how the Horn of Africa nation, 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.

It said violations were taking place on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere".

"There is also an issue as to whether the extent of the sorts of abuses we identified comprise crimes against humanity," Mike Smith, who headed the UN commission of inquiry, told reporters.

Smith said the commission did not have the mandate to investigate this, but added: "We did leave in our recommendations several suggestions on areas we thought the international community and the Security Council should follow up on."

"We didn't have the time, the resources (or) the possibility to be able to make any determination on (crimes against humanity) and we simply recommended that some mechanism could be judged to look at that issue," he said.

The report provides a list of government and state entities responsible for the abuse, including the military, police, justice ministry and Isaias himself.

Eritrea has dismissed the report and defended its controversial policy of decades-long national service from which about 5,000 people flee each month, saying it has "no other choice" due to threats from long-standing enemy Ethiopia.

Eritreans make up the second-largest number of people risking the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, after Syrians, running the gauntlet of ruthless people smugglers and dangerous waters in the hope of reaching the European Union.

Smith also rejected criticism that the commission of inquiry had obtained a skewed report by speaking to asylum seekers with an agenda.

He said most of the people interviewed in Europe already had legal status and jobs.

Moreover, "their stories very much reflect those of people who left more recently," he said. "We don't believe we were duped."

Tens of thousands of young Eritreans brave razor wire, minefields and armed border guards to sneak out of the country every year in order to escape repression and avoid years of conscripted military service.

The UN commission report was based on 550 interviews with Eritreans living abroad, and on 160 written submissions.