Islington resident Yemi Hailemariam has been petitioning Downing Street in order to put pressure on the Foreign Commonwealth Office, but says she has seen little improvement.
The political activist Andargachew Tsege was flying from Yemen to Dubai on 23 June 2014 when he was captured in a Yemenese airport and sent to Ethiopia against his will. His family found out his whereabouts a week later when the Yemen government confirmed the operation.
When I knew the truth, it was heart-breaking to say the least. It was the day that changed our lives.
Tsege has a long history of animosity with Ethiopian politicians. He flew out of the country in 1979 at the age of 24 as a political refugee and found shelter in England, where he gained British citizenship status. He settled in Islington, but continued campaigning and visiting Ethiopia.
He joined the movement GINBOT 7,
which was formed in 2008 by politicians and activists in exile. The party, whose agenda is to overthrow the ruling party, was labelled as a terrorist group by Ethiopia in 2011. Tsege has been charged with terrorism and sentenced to death in absentia twice, in 2009 and 2012.
The legal battle
Since her husband’s imprisonment, Hailemariam has started a legal battle to free Tsege. Her campaign eventually gained the attention of Prime Minister David Cameron, who wrote to the Ethiopian Prime Minister
Hailemariam Desalegn last October asking for consular access to Tsege and for the death penalty not to be imposed. Tsege was granted only two visits with the British ambassador, on 11 August 2014 and 19 December 2014, but has had no access to lawyers.
Ethiopia has also vetoed a visit from Tsege’s MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who was scheduled to travel to the country on 13 February.
Hailemariam argues that the Ethiopian government has breached international law. She says:
It was an illegal procedure. Citizens have legal rights; they can’t be removed from a country against their will without informing their embassy. That’s kidnapping.
In its 2015 report, advocacy group Human Rights Watch called attention to Tsege’s case
: “The transfer violated international law prohibitions against sending someone to a country where they are likely to face torture or other mistreatment.”
A Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesperson has also declared that Tsege’s rights have not been respected. “We remain deeply concerned that Andargachew Tsege is being detained in Ethiopia without being granted his rights to regular consular visits or access to a lawyer. We have repeatedly raised this with the Ethiopian authorities and will continue to do so.”
70,000 strong petition
In February, Hailemariam handed a petition with more than 70,000 signatures to Downing Street to ask the British government to put pressure on Ethiopia. But she said that she is in the battlefield alone and that the FCO has been too lenient.
“The FCO is driven by pressure, not by principles. And it infuriates me.”
But lenience might not be the only element in this diplomatic puzzle.
Ethiopia is an important economic partner for the UK and a strong ally on counter-terrorism activities in the region. In the next two years, the UK is investing £303 million in the country.
“Ethiopia lies at the heart of an unstable region that has experienced almost continuous conflict and environmental shocks in recent decades”, detailed the Department for International Development (DFID) in a document about investment in Ethiopia
It concluded that “a stable, secure and prosperous Ethiopia is critical to UK interests”.
“Ethiopian security forces are responsible for the kidnap, torture and death sentence of British national Andargachew Tsege”
For legal charity Reprieve
, the British government is putting economic and security reasons above international law.
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team, said:
Ethiopian security forces are responsible for the kidnap, torture and death sentence of British national, Andargachew Tsege. Instead of dodging questions and then secretly shelving embarrassing programmes, DFID [Department for International Development] should be explaining why it was using taxpayers’ money to fund these forces in the first place – and what safeguards, if any, it put in place to ensure this ‘high risk’ funding did not enable abuses of the kind suffered by Mr Tsege.
Despite the complexity of Tsege’s case, Hailemariam says she has not given up hope.
“The only thing I see is that we cannot stop. I believe something will work out because we live in a society where I understand civil rights matter. That is very important. Even if the government doesn’t believe so, society believes this kind of thing is unacceptable. I believe we can make progress.”