Police on alert for potential violence at Eritrean festival in Melbourne

Supporters of the African nation’s dictatorial regime have clashed with opponents in the diaspora at similar events in other countries

Kelly BurkeWed 10 Jan 2024 01.57 GMTLast modified on Wed 10 Jan 2024 03.05 GMT

Australian federal police and government officials have met representatives of the Eritrean community in a bid to avoid potential violence during a planned cultural festival in Melbourne’s western suburbs this weekend.

Similar events held in Europe and North America in recent months have ended in violence and arrests, as supporters of the African nation’s regime clashed with members of the pro-democracy youth movement Birged Nhamedu.

Much of the Eritrean diaspora around the world sees the festivals as a show of power to intimidate those who have fled the dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki.

Members of Birged Nhamedu in Australia have asked the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, to ban the festival, citing foreign political interference. They have said they would protest peacefully outside the event, due to begin on Thursday, if it went ahead.

Police contain protesters after an Eritrean festival erupted into violence in Stockholm.

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A spokesperson for the group, Hatu Gebremedhin, said the cultural festivals were used as a propaganda tool. He claimed the events included politically motivated militaristic demonstrations and hostile speeches directed at those who had fled the country since Afwerki took power in 1993.

In images Birged Nhamedu say were captured during last year’s Melbourne festival, children dressed in military-style uniforms can be seen carrying what appear to be replica rifles.

The organisers of the festival, the Eritrean Group Association of Victoria and the Eritrean National Communities Council Inc, have previously received Victorian government grants for the festival, including $4,000 in 2020. No funding has been provided since then, according to the government’s grants data.

Neither organising group could be contacted for comment. The Eritrean consulate in Melbourne did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year, a senior member of Afwerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice governing party, which a UN report found responsible for “widespread and systematic crimes against humanity”, was granted an entry visa to Australia to open the festival.

Asked whether any representative of the regime had been granted a visa for this year’s event, a spokesperson for Giles said the minister was unable to comment on individual cases.

Questions over concerns among the Eritrean community about the festival were referred to Home Affairs. Representatives from that department were present at Tuesday’s meeting in Melbourne, where AFP officers presented information on Australia’s interpretation of foreign interference and laws governing peaceful protest.

An AFP spokesperson said in a statement its community liaison officers “regularly partner with other government and non-government agencies to support community engagement between law enforcement and diverse communities on sensitive matters”.skip past newsletter promotion

Police push people back during a protest outside the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto after the city revoked a permit for an Eritrean cultural festival scheduled to run in August.

Police push people back during a protest outside the Sheraton hotel in Toronto after the city revoked a permit for an Eritrean cultural festival scheduled to run in August. Photograph: Arlyn McAdorey/AP

In a statement, Birged Nhamedu said high-ranking members of Afwerki’s regime had been used to intimidate, spread disinformation and compromise the safety and unity of the Eritrean diaspora across the globe.

In August, more than 50 people were injured and dozens detained after clashes at a Eritrean cultural festival in Stockholm. In September, Israeli police fired on Eritreans in Tel Aviv when their protest against the festival turned violent.

Clashes have also been reported at similar events in the US, Canada and Germany.

Police stand near the gutted remains of cars in Stockholm after an Eritrean festival that turned violent in August

Police stand near the gutted remains of cars at an Eritrean festival in Stockholm that turned violent in August. Photograph: Magnus Lejhall/AP

Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”. In 2016, an inquiry by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council found reasonable grounds to believe the regime had committed crimes against humanity.

“Eritrean officials have engaged in a persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the country’s civilian population since 1991,” the report concluded.

“They have committed, and continue to commit, the crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.”

It is believed as many as half a million of Eritrea’s population of about five million have fled the country since the PFDJ took power, crushing all opposition parties, banning independent media and introducing forced and indefinite military service for all Eritreans under 40.

Source : The Gardian

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