Mark Townsend | Saturday 23 January 2016 | THE GUARDIAN
Claims government has failed ‘ghost prisoner’ denied access to a lawyer or his family
The partner of a British man sentenced to death in Ethiopia has accused the UK government of wilfuly ignoring his plight.
Andargachew Tsege was given the death penalty at a trial held in his absence six years ago, in contravention of international law. A prominent figure in an Ethiopian opposition party, he disappeared in June 2014 during a stopover in Yemen while travelling from Dubai to Eritrea, in what campaigners regard as a politically motivated kidnapping. He was then illegally rendered to Ethiopia on the command of the Ethiopian government, as part of a crackdown on dissidents and civil rights activists.
Speaking ahead of Foreign Office minister James Duddridge’s arrival on Wednesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for the annual African Union summit, Tsege’s partner, Yemi Hailemariam, from north London, said she felt betrayed by the UK government’s apparent indifference.
Foreign Office officials, however, have yet to learn whether they will even be granted a meeting with Ethiopia to raise Tsege’s case.
“Since Andy disappeared in June 2014 our family has been living a nightmare,” said Hailemariam. “My children are desperate to see their father again. Andy believed in democracy above all – that’s what he respected about Britain, and it’s what he hoped for in Ethiopia. He was sentenced to death for holding these very British values – we simply can’t understand why the government he believed in isn’t standing up for him.”
It is now 18 months since Tsege was put in jail and UK ministers have yet to request the 60-year-old’s release. Letters to the Tsege’s lawyers indicate that Duddridge believes the father of three from Islington should appeal his conviction through the Ethiopian courts, a stance his family fear reveals that the UK government has accepted the validity of Tsege’s conviction. Despite being pressed last week on whether its position had changed, the Foreign Office remains unmoved.
By contrast, the European Parliament cranked up the pressure on Ethiopia last Thursday, passing a resolution demanding the country release Tsege “immediately”.
Tsege, who fled the country in the 1970s and sought asylum in the UK in 1979, has been unable to contact a lawyer since his arrest, and his family have similarly been blocked from seeing him.
A redacted transcript from a 30-minute meeting on December 26 last year between Tsege and a British official allowed to visit him apperared to confirm he is effectively a “ghost prisoner”.
The transcript states: “He [Tsege] had been told there was a problem in that he ‘wasn’t in the system and hadn’t been given a prisoner number’. He was also denied other rights that other prisoners enjoyed such as watching TV, listening to the radio and reading newspapers.”
It added: “He didn’t even know who was really responsible for him – he’d written to ask but hadn’t received a response yet.”
Maya Foa, the head of Reprieve’s death penalty team, said the time had come for the Foreign Office to abandon soft diplmacy and call for the Briton’s release. She said: “Tsege has been subjected to an outrageous, unlawful ordeal, and if the Foreign Office disagrees, it must explain why.
“It is unacceptable that a British citizen was sentenced to death in a political show trial – where he wasn’t present, and didn’t even know about the court proceedings – and then kidnapped into indefinite detention by the same brutal regime. It’s clear that there is no hope of ‘due process’ in Ethiopia’s courts, and that Andy’s very wellbeing is at stake.”
A psychological analysis of Tsege, based on the transcript from the prison visit suggest his mental state has deteriorated significantly. Dr Ben Robinson, of South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, said the transcipt suggests Tsege may have become suicidal.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The foreign secretary has raised Tsege’s case with the Ethiopian government on 20 separate occasions, making it clear the way he has been treated is unacceptable. We welcome the improvement in access to Tsege, following the British Government’s intervention, but it must be more regular and it must include access to a lawyer.
The statement added: “Tsege has still not been given an ability to challenge his detention through a legal process. The foreign secretary has written formally to the Ethiopians requesting a timetable for that legal process.”