A Year On from His Kidnap, a British Man Is Still On Death Row in Ethiopia
Published on Vice, Thursday 25
This week marks a year since British citizen Andargachew Tsege was seized by Ethiopian agents at an airport in Yemen, flown to Ethiopia and imprisoned in a still unknown facility. Tsege, known to his friends as Andy, grew up in Ethiopia but moved to the United Kingdom, where he was granted citizenship, in 1979. He is a member of the Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, which the government in Addis Ababa has, under – draconian legislation adapted from UK and US anti-terror laws – classified as a terrorist organisation. Tsege’s involvement with the group means that under Ethiopian law he, too, is a terrorist. He still faces the death penalty, though this sentence is unlikely.
The legal charity Reprieve – acting as Tsege’s lawyers – and Yemi Hailemariam, his longterm partner and the mother of his three children, insist that Tsege is a peaceful democrat intent only on helping to provide an opposition voice in a country whose rapid economic growth has masked a troubling human rights record. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has a fondness for locking up its detractors.
“The Ethiopian Government is going to great lengths to try to justify its year-long abuse of Andy Tsege”, Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team told me, “but no amount of staged propaganda can mask the appalling reality of Andy’s incommunicado detention, torture, and death sentence for the so-called ‘crime’ of holding democratic ideals”.
Recent “staged propaganda” includes photos taken by Tsege’s captors of him visiting a new motorway (the Ethiopian authorities are very fond of trumpeting new infrastructure initiatives) and another photo of him with the caption, “The campaign by the British on behalf of a terrorist will not help”.
The British campaign on the behalf of Tsege is complicated by the British government’s relationship with Ethiopia. Tsege has found himself, so far, sacrificed on the geo-political altar. Ethiopia is a vital strategic ally to Britain and the United States in the war on terror, as well as being a recipient of aid money from both those countries. The fate of one man, however innocent he might be, is simply not going to change the British government’s position on Ethiopia as an occasionally rather awkward but really pretty important ally.
On Monday, the final results the Ethiopian general elections confirmed the EPRDF’s grip on the country. The ruling party and its allies won all 546 parliamentary seats. Andy Tsege, contemplating a year in prison, might have found some dark humour in the timing of the announcement of this electoral triumph. The UK’s minister for Africa, James Duddridge, welcomed the “generally peaceful environment” the elections had taken place in, even though political opponents and journalists had been locked up in the run-up to the vote.
Recent reports from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) indicate that Tsege’s condition is deteriorating significantly. Ethiopia’s prisons are often synonymous with torture, disease and intense surveillance. Fellow prisoners spy on each other and Ethiopian state television is regularly played as a sort of Clockwork Orange style of brainwashing. In 438 Days, an account of their time in an Ethiopian prison, the Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson tell the story of a Rastafarian prisoner from Trinidad who screams that the prison is worse that one of the old slave ships.
A year on from her partner’s kidnap, Yemi retains the hope that she will see him again but fears that by then he may be too traumatised by his experiences to live anything resembling a normal life. Her fears may be well founded. A source in the Ethiopian government told me that the “most probable” outcome for Tsege will be that his death sentence is “commuted to a life sentence via a presidential pardon. In turn, that could possibly lead to a full pardon in the future – though not for some years”.
While she has not abandoned hope, Yemi feels as though she is at the mercy of forces far beyond her control. “Nothing has changed”, she told me, “the situation is sickening. The British blame the Ethiopian government and say that they aren’t predictable, but they are doing business with the Ethiopians, so they must be getting through to them somehow. They are letting the Ethiopians set the agenda but the UK government is not powerless. With minimal risk, they can go far, but they’re just not willing”.
“We will continue to lobby at all levels, conveying our concern over Andargachew Tsege being detained without regular consular visits and access to a lawyer”, the FCO told me.
It’s been a year since Yemi last saw her partner and over six months since she last spoke to him on the telephone. She says that she “feels like a failure”. She has come face-to-face with the cold realities of international politics and feels defeated. “I honestly thought we could be a lot further. I just think, ‘Where are we going wrong?'” Local politicians have helped her though, particularly Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn. “He has been amazing”, Yemi says. “His humanity is unbelievable. He doesn’t have that personal ambition that you see in a lot of politicians. He believes in certain things and wants to make them a reality”. She is now helping out on Corbyn’s campaign.
One year on and the British government still stands accused of putting its political and commercial desires ahead of its duty to its citizens. One year on and the Ethiopian government continue to show that, in the words of a source in its foreign ministry, “human rights are low down on the lists of our priorities”. For Reprieve’s Maya Foa, the message is clear: “Now more than ever, the British government must demand his release, so he can be returned safely to his family in London.”
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