Andy Tsege: the British citizen on Ethiopia’s death row
Why is the UK government refusing to call for his release?
By John Keenan / July 14, 2017
(Prospect Magazine) — The prime minister had a lot on her mind in the early hours of 9th June. She had held her own seat in Maidenhead, but across the nation the results in the snap general election were grim. The Conservative Party’s small majority in the House of Commons was being shredded. In that context, Theresa May can be forgiven for not remembering a brief conversation with a rival candidate who had received a mere 16 votes.
Yemi Hailemariam tells me, “I introduced myself to Mrs May and asked if she knew who I was and why I was standing. She told me that she did.” Yemi is the partner of Andargachew “Andy” Tsege, a British citizen who was kidnapped from an airport in Yemen in 2014 and rendered to Ethiopia, the country of his birth. For the last three years she has been campaigning for the release of the imprisoned Tsege, with whom she has two children.
Tsege first came to the attention of the Ethiopian authorities as a student activist in the 1970s. His younger brother was killed by the security forces and in 1979, he left the country and sought asylum in the UK. He went on to study at the University of Greenwich and secure UK citizenship. Tsege remained politically active and co-founded the Ginbot 7 party, which campaigned for free elections and civil rights. The Ethiopian regime branded it a terrorist organization and tried and convicted Tsege in his absence, sentencing him to death.
Yemi says her partner is being held in Ethiopia’s brutal Kality prison and denied access to a lawyer or consular access with British officials. He has appeared in videos broadcast on Ethiopian state television, looking confused and worryingly thin while apparently “confessing” to offences. Both the United Nations and the European Parliament have called for Tsege’s release. But the UK government has not.
In an open letter in August 2016, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated, “I am aware of the suggestion that the UK Government should directly call for Mr Tsege’s release. As my predecessor [Philip Hammond] has previously stated, Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions, any more than we would accept interference in our judicial system.” Yet this trial was described by observing American diplomats as “lacking in basic elements of due process.”
When the prime minister called the surprise general election, Yemi seized the chance to stand as a candidate in Theresa May’s constituency to draw attention to Andy’s plight. “I asked people to write a postcard calling for action from the UK government,” she explains, “and I collected 537 which I have sent to Downing Street.” In June, on the third anniversary of Tsege’s disappearance, Yemi wrote to the prime minister asking her to negotiate his return home. She is still waiting for a response.
Maya Foa, a director at the human rights organisation Reprieve, says “We are not aware of another case where a British national remains on death row overseas, having been kidnapped outside the UK and rendered to a third country. In one somewhat comparable case, that of the British bookseller Lee Bo, who appears to have been abducted from Hong Kong and rendered to mainland China, the situation was swiftly resolved following robust action from the UK Foreign Secretary. This is exactly what needs to happen in Andy’s case and what the FCO has thus far fallen short of.”
Yemi and their children haven’t spoken to Andy since December 2014. In her letter to the prime minister, she wrote: “I am still at a loss about how to explain to them why their dad can’t come home. How can I tell them that their own country, their own prime minister has not called for his return? Instead of fighting the Ethiopian government on this together with you, I am still stuck fighting for the UK government to do the right thing.”