(Sudan Tribune) — A female Eritrean Air Force pilot has defected to Saudia Arabia where she is seeking political asylum in Saudi Arabia, in in a latest sign of embarrassment to the dictatorial regime in Asmara.
Captain Rahwa Gebrekristos deserted to Saudi Arabia after being sent to the kingdom last week on assignment to retrieve a presidential jet that had been waiting for return following the defection of another two air force pilots last year.
However, like her two former colleagues, Yonas Woldeab and his deputy Mekonnen Debesay, who secretly flew president Isaias Afewerki’s plane to Saudi Arabia last October before defecting, Gebrekristos is also claiming asylum.
Opposition sources allege that Eritrean authorities are secretly consulting with their Saudi counterparts to deport the 34-year-old pilot. She is currently being held at a police station in the western city of Jizan until Saudi authorities decide on her fate.
An Eritrean opposition official told Sudan Tribune that if Gebrekristos is deported she could face torture or other inhuman treatments, as well as a long-term prison sentence or even the death penalty. Under Eritrean law, military members who defect are considered traitors, a crime punishable by death.
Nessredin Ahmed, the spokesperson for foreign affairs at the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), called on the international community to apply pressure on the Saudi government not to deport Gebrekristos, saying she is in need of protection.
RSADO has also urged the Saudi government to fully respect its obligations under international laws on asylum seekers and avoid forcibly returning the Eritrean pilot to her homeland.
The defection of the national air force pilot is another blow to the regime of the reclusive Red Sea nation, which is facing growing public discontent. Dozens of air force pilots and members have defected from the country in protest against ongoing political oppression and its unpopular military policies.
The one-party state, which has been led by Afewerki since gaining independence in 1993, has among the world’s worst records on human rights and press freedom. The country is Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists and is also known by right groups as a “giant prison”, with the tiny nation home to up to 10,000 political prisoners.