Controversial New Video Fuels Anger over British Activist Stuck on Death Row in Ethiopia
Published on Vice, Thursday 29 January 2015
Andargachew Tsege — known to his friends as Andy — is a British citizen currently on death row in Ethiopia for allegedly plotting a coup and planning to kill Ethiopian officials as part of his leadership of the Ginbot 7 opposition movement. Earlier this month a new video featuring Tsege was released, representing the first time his family have seen him since the last footage was broadcast, six months ago.
Tsege’s lawyer Maya Foa, who is head of the death penalty team at the legal charity Reprieve, told VICE News that the video is “a naked attempt to counter allegations that Andy is being tortured.” Its release places more pressure on the British government, which continues to stand accused of not doing enough to help its citizen.
Tsege was born in Ethiopia but left in 1979 and given citizenship in Britain. Following the overthrow of the brutal Derg regime in 1991, he returned briefly to his homeland, before exposing corruption in the new government of then-president Meles Zenawi, before being again driven out of his country back to the UK.
In 2009, he was sentenced to death, in absentia, by the Ethiopian authorities, which accuse him and the banned Ginbot 7 movement of being terrorists. Last June, Tsege was seized by Ethiopian agents in Yemen and taken to Ethiopia, where he has been in a secret detention facility ever since. While he’s unlikely to face a rarely imposed death sentence, he is on death row and the charges against him are being brought.
Before Tsege appears in the newly released video, its narrator discusses the CIA’s torture report and mentions the adoption of various torture techniques used by the militant group the Islamic State. The purpose of this is to establish that this is not how Ethiopia deals with its political prisoners. “Expert interrogators know very well that information can’t be extracted using any of these inhuman methods”, the narrator says. The suspects, he says, have co-operated because “their human rights are respected and they are handled with care.”
When Tsege does appear, he says that “this is a different era,” in which opposition movements can express their beliefs freely. He tells the viewer that he is being treated well: “I have really become healthy since I came here. Physically I am so perfectly healthy — absolutely. I’m so thin; there are no bumps anywhere… To tell you the truth there are lots of things I have come to appreciate,” he says. His partner of ten years, Yemi Hailemariam, with whom he is bringing up three children, believes he is speaking under duress.
‘Andy has now been held in solitary and incommunicado detention for over seven months, under sentence of death.’
The rest of the footage is peppered with slightly bizarre observations that are meant to support the Ethiopian authorities’ insistence that Tsege is being treated well and he even manages a comment on the British media. Responding to allegations by the Independent that he is being tortured in prison, Tsege says: “God only knows what they based this story on. You know what? I wish I knew the details. It is one of the respectable papers. It is equivalent to the Guardian and the Times, the Independent.”
Tsege says that today’s Ethiopian young people lack the commitment of their predecessors: “Today’s youth will make an appointment with their girlfriend and will spend an hour getting ready — straightening his shirt or something.”
The general opinion in Addis Ababa is that the video is staged. “Practical PR remains awful,” a government source told me and a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office said that its release was “regrettable.”
Ethiopia has been a key long-term regional ally for the US and the UK. A large country in the Horn of Africa, it has been an active supporter of the War on Terror — taking on al Shabaab in Somalia and jailing suspected Al Qaeda militants — as well as adapting British and American anti-terror legislation and using it to crack down on opposition groups and civil society.
In the past year, a wide variety of journalists been arrested on very tenuous grounds. As well as Ginbot 7 and others, separatist rebel groups the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front have been declared terrorist organisations. Ethiopia’s development model, which borrows from China, puts alleviating poverty through very tight state control first and has little time for the freedoms that Western democracies purport to champion.
“Ethiopia simply doesn’t have a Human Rights Watch approach to human rights,” a source in Ethiopia’s foreign ministry told me. “It quite deliberately prefers to emphasize food, shelter, and related issues over Western-style democracy and a Western-style free press. Those come a long way behind and the country is not going to get them for a long time.”
There are some indicators of success for this model. The country’s GDP has gone from $12.4 billion in 2005 to $47.5 billion in 2013, according to the World Bank. And while the British government has expressed its concern with Ethiopia’s human rights record, it continues to support the country politically and financially. Ethiopia is a priority for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which spent £261.5 million on the country — its biggest program — between 2012 and 2013.
Tsege’s case, then, is a headache for the British government. Addis Ababa has only allowed him to be visited by the British Ambassador twice — the last time on December 19. “We continue to press the Ethiopian authorities at the highest levels regarding both Andargachew’s treatment and the need to follow due legal process. We strongly oppose the death penalty in his as in all cases,” a British foreign office spokesperson said.
Nevertheless, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has not called his counterpart to discuss the case. Internal foreign office emails leaked to the Mail on Sunday revealed that officials were exasperated with Hammond for not finding the time to make a call and not wanting to write a “negative” letter.
Foa shares this exasperation. “It is clear that those working for the Foreign Secretary know how perilous the situation is for Tsege,” she told VICE News. “They know that Andy has committed no crime, that his extradition was probably unlawful, and that there are grave risks to his safety. What’s shocking is that the Foreign Secretary appears time and time again to have blocked any meaningful action that could potentially bring this British father home to his family, unharmed.
How many political bloggers need to be imprisoned before the US reacts? Read more here.
“Andy has now been held in solitary and incommunicado detention for over seven months, under sentence of death. One has to question what interests the Foreign Secretary is putting above the life and safety of his citizen, when all those around him are calling for him to do more,” she says.
It remains very unlikely that a death sentence will be carried out but little progress appears to have been made in the case. The Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye, who was held in an Ethiopian prison for 14 months, told VICE News that, based on his experience listening to the screams of opposition members, he was very confident Tsege was being tortured.
A source in the Ethiopian foreign ministry suggested that if Tsege asks for a pardon, his death sentence will be commuted to a life sentence in prison. This in turn would allow for a presidential pardon later — something that could eventually lead to Tsege being released from jail.
But while Mulatu Teshome, Ethiopia’s president, has been more prominent than previous holders of the position and will have views of his own on the case, there is very little concrete evidence Tsege can currently hold on to as grounds for hope.
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