Information about Dahlak’s current business activities is elusive, particularly due to lack of independent media operating in the country. Limited information about businesses is occasionally published the ministry of information, which is controlled by the ruling regime and unlikely to provide complete and sensitive information.

Various entities in the construction and mining industry are formally owned by the Eritrean ruling party, which then subcontract work to unspecified local contractors. Those local contractors, however, are affiliated to the government and use forced labour provided by the regime in the form of national service.

While Eritrea had welcomed foreign companies and their investment into the country, mining and constructions projects remain under heavy control and supervision by the regime. According to the Human Rights Watch, all non-Eritrean companies are obligated by the regime to use state-owned or state-affiliated firms for development that use forced labour.

For example, Dahlak and his company called ID Enterprises, whose existence could not be verified, was mentioned as a contractor in connection to a 2014 mining project between the Eritrean government and a Russian company. According to the report, Eritrean State mining company ENAMCO will use its “trusted contractor ID Enterprises, known to be owned by Eritrean businessman Isaias Dahlak” for infrastructure work.

This scheme, under which the regime is able to control substantial cash flows and syphon the funds to associated parties, allowed Dahlak to directly benefit from human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime and enrich himself from Eritrean state assets, whether as a beneficiary of the unregulated subcontracts using forced labour provided by the government, or as an intermediary between genuine local contractors and the government.

In return, the cash-strapped regime is able to bring down the costs associated with mining and construction projects by using forced labour, enrich itself, and provide an alibi for foreign investors to claim that neither they nor the government are directly committing human rights abuses, with any reports of such violations are due to rogue local contractors.

This arrangement furthers allows the Eritrean regime to maintain the impression of operating its construction and mining industries as according to international standards to the international investor community, which has been vying to obtain lucrative contracts in partnership with the regime.

Witnesses confirm Dahlak’s involvement

Testimonies from Eritrean refugees, who are fleeing the regime due to persecution and the brutal mandatory national service that supposed to last 18 months but in reality is indefinite, have testified that Dahlak is known for being “in charge” of at least several mining and construction projects in Eritrea.

These witnesses told UEC researchers that as part of their brutal national service, they were forced to worked at mines, where Dahlak had interests, under the threat of physical punishment and torture.

Tekle Elyah, whose real name is known but protected due to possible retaliation by the regime against the remaining family in Eritrea, testified that as part of his mandatory national service he was forced to work at one of the construction projects related to a mine in central Eritrea in inhuman work conditions and unsanitary living conditions.

“Dahlak was revered in god-like terms among military commanders who kept us at gunpoint at the location … we were told to be thankful for the opportunity to help his business.”

Tekle Elyah

As part of his military posting, Elyah had to remain on site and work over 12 hours every day, without the freedom to even temporarily leave the site and visit the family. Elyah said that a commander told all the soldiers working on site that they ought to be thankful for the posting as they are “on loan” to a private company owned by Dahlak, described as “the best of Eritrea”, who also “has the ear” of the president Isaias Afwerki.

Another refugee Asmara Alazar, whose real name is known but protected due to possible retaliation by the regime against the remaining family in Eritrea, also claims to have been sent as part of his military service to one of the mines that Dahlak personally benefits from.

“One worker complained that the food provided was insufficient to work at the mine … a commander then beat him and warned others that Dahlak personally will chop their legs off if they complain or fail to complete daily quotas.”

Asmara Alazar

Alazar claims a military commander guarding the soldiers from escaping, tried to intimidate the soldiers saying the mine and they “belong” to Dahlak who will “chop theirs legs off” if they fail to work efficiently.

Such testimonies are on par with testimonies by other Eritrean refugees, most notably in Canada, who are suing a Canadian mining company where they claim they had to work – effectively as slave labour – for a mine in Eritrea.