Andargachew Tsige, known to his friends and family as Andy, is a British citizen from Ethiopia. He came to England as a political refugee in 1979. Now he’s back in Ethiopia, locked up and possibly enduring torture for being a political dissident, and the UK stands accused of not doing enough to help.
Tsige is the secretary general of Ginbot 7, an opposition group banned by the Ethiopian government. In 2009, he was sentenced to death at a trial held in Ethiopia in his absence for supposedly planning a coup. Then, in June this year, he was seized in Yemen, which has a security arrangement with Ethiopia. For two weeks, it seemed as though he had disappeared off the face of the Earth. Then, he emerged on Ethiopian state TV broadcasts, where it was revealed that he was being held in a secret detention facility. While he’s unlikely to face a rarely imposed death sentence, he is currently on death row.
In the first video released, he appears for a short time and looks fairly healthy. But in the second, screaming can be heard in the background (just after the one-minute mark), and Tsige, looking thin and exhausted, is presented as if he is making a confession. A narrator says, in a haltingly edited piece of propaganda, that Tsige has been working with neighboring Eritrea—which has a longstanding feud with Ethiopia—that he has been disrupting the “peace and economic growth of Ethiopia,” and that he has been “training various people and sending ammunition through Eritrean borders.” His lawyers are concerned that evidence obtained through torture will be used to justify the sentence imposed on him.
Since his arrest, a UK Foreign Office (FCO) spokesperson told me, Tsige has only seen the British ambassador to Ethiopia once. That was back in August. “We are deeply concerned about his welfare,” the spokesperson said. “We want consular access and are pressing for further access to him.” David Cameron has written to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn “to request regular consular access and his assurance that the death penalty will not be imposed.”
Despite this diplomatic action, a British citizen is languishing on death row based on evidence that could have been gained through torture, and there has been no public condemnation of Ethiopia’s actions. His advocates say it’s not good enough. Human rights charity Reprieve has initiated legal proceedings against the Foreign Office (FCO) for its failure to treat Tsige’s abduction as a serious breach of international law.
Andy Tsige is raising three children with Yemi Hailemariam, his girlfriend of ten years. All three children have written to Cameron to ask what he is doing to get their father out of prison. Cameron, though, will be treading carefully. Strategically located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a key ally to the West in the war on terror and has a close relationship with Britain. It is one of the main actors in the fight against Al Shabaab in Somalia. Ethiopia’s use of its anti-terrorism legislation to crack down on dissent of any kind is troubling. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Ethiopia has become a surveillance state. Press freedom is deteriorating, particularly in the run-up to elections next May.
When I put this to a source in Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs, he insisted that grounds for concern over terrorism in the region were legitimate. “I don’t think it is so much Ethiopia using its strategic importance to do what it wants. The government does genuinely feel it is in the frontline against terrorism—and in terms of terrorist activity it has some cause—Al-Shabaab is in Somalia and trying to make moves into Ethiopia as well as Kenya, Uganda, and so on.”
Ethiopia considers Ginbot 7 a terrorist group, and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn claimsthat “Andargachew Tsige is a Trojan horse for the Eritrean government to destabilize this country.” Eritrea is where the Ethiopian opposition groups meet, and any connection to Eritrea can be milked by the Ethiopian government. According to a recent report submitted to the UN’s Security Council by its Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the Diplomatic missions and military officers of Eritrea are involved in the recruitment, training, and operational aspects of Ginbot 7.
But Ginbot 7 does not appear to be anything like Al-Shabaab. Its mission statement says that it is looking to establish a “national political system in which government power and political authority is assumed through peaceful and democratic process based on the free will and choice of citizens of the country.” Tsige’s family and lawyers insist that he is a peaceful man trying to stand up to an authoritarian regime.
My FCO spokesperson told me that more vocal lobbying is a “tool in our diplomatic arsenal,” to be used at the right moment. Old school diplomacy is still the order of the day, she said, and the British government’s public line may change depending on how the case goes. My Ethiopian foreign ministry source implies that this might be the right approach, citing the experience of Martin Schibbye and Johann Persson, two Swedish journalists who spent nearly a year in an Ethiopian prison on terror charges from 2011 to 2012. They “would have been released months earlier if the Swedish foreign ministry and Human Rights Watch hadn’t kept making loud public noises about ill treatment and human rights abuse,” he said.
Maybe that’s the cut and thrust of realpolitik, and the FCO is playing a savvy game. But a cynic might point out that there are grounds to believe that the British government’s approach is more about not showing up its ally than a desire to protect a British citizen.
Last year, internal documents from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) showed that millions of pounds of foreign aid money was set to fund the training of Ethiopian security forces in the Ogaden region, which has been accused of numerous human rights abuses and summary executions.
Then there’s a master’s program for Ethiopian security-sector officials, funded by DFID. A DFID document, still available online, reveals that places for Ethiopian officials on the “Executive Masters in Security Sector Management delivered to top and mid level military and civil servants in five cohorts” at Cranfield University, were set to be funded by the department up until 2017. The course has since been closed due to “concerns about risk and value for money.” I’m sure this is totally unrelated to any embarrassment that Tsige’s case might cause DFID. Despite the cancelation, the question remains: Can the British government be expected to stand up for Tsige while it is funding Ethiopia’s oppressive anti-terror operation?
Yemi Hailemariam, Andy’s long-term girlfriend, is worried that the father of her children will continue to suffer. “There needs to be clarity in the message the British government is sending to Ethiopia. They need to tell them, ‘This is our citizen. Please give him back,’” she said. Tsige’s lawyers, from the legal charity Reprieve, are just as concerned. Maya Foa, head of their death penalty team, said, “It beggars belief that the UK Government is not doing more to get him back.”
Tsige’s family are trying to hold themselves together. “I don’t feel at all confident about him coming back. I try not to think about it because when I do, I fall to pieces,” Yemi told me. Whatever happens, he “will be expected to ask for a pardon,” sources close to the case in Ethiopia tell me. If he does this, his death sentence will be replaced with a life sentence in prison, perhaps less. In a country that emphasizes security over human rights, and with the British intent on maintaining an important strategic and economic alliance, it may just be the best he can hope for.
Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.