While changing planes at an international airport in 2014, Andy Tsege, a prominent figure in Ethiopian opposition politics, was bound, hooded, and put on a plane. He was taken to Ethiopia, and has been imprisoned there ever since.
This vocal critic of the Ethiopian government has previously called for democracy in the country.
In 1979, fearing for his safety, Andy sought political asylum in Britain, later becoming a British citizen.
Andy Tsege was given two life sentences and one death sentence in absentia, meaning he was not present for his own court case. This is unlawful under international law. He has also been told he has no chance of appeal.
In their London home, his partner Yemi and their three children spoke about their experience. When Yemi first found out that Andy had gone missing, she didn’t know what to think: “Initially when I heard, I didn’t process it very well, because I just couldn’t believe what had happened.”
It only transpired later that he had been kidnapped by Ethiopian authorities. Since that time, he has only been allowed to contact his family in London once, in December 2014.
Yemi said: “It was a Sunday. I’ll never forget. At 8 o’clock in the morning, the phone rang. I said, ‘Where are you?’ and then he said, ‘I’m still there.’”
The children gathered by the phone, and each spoke with their father.
Yemi told her partner that the family was working hard to get him home. He responded: “You need to manage their expectations.” That was the end of the call, and there has not been another one since.
Freeing Andy Tsege
Alongside the family, human rights organisation Reprieve has been campaigning for Andy Tsege’s release. The charity’s founder, Clive Stafford Smith, claims the UK government has been “doing nothing meaningful” to end the situation.
He adds: “What is the value of this government if it can’t even get a kidnapped Brit back from a foreign government?”
In an open letter on Andy’s case, foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions.”
In response to this, Clive Stafford Smith said: “The idea that a British person is kidnapped, and the British government won’t even ask that he should be set free, is just beyond belief.”
He said that while the UK government may be acting in a particular way to avoid offending Ethiopia, it is instead offending British people: “You can’t kidnap a British person and threaten to kill them, and not be criticised by the British government.”
Andy Tsege’s teenage daughter Holly has been vocal about the campaign to get her father home. She said: “The fact that they’re not helping says something about the government. They’re not taking seriously that one of their own people has been kidnapped, and they’re not doing anything to bring him back. It shows the government in a negative light.”
The charity is now launching a campaign, ‘Free Andy Tsege,’ aiming to raise the profile of the case and encourage the UK government to do more to help.
Clive Stafford Smith said: “The world is not holding them [the Ethiopian government] to account, because not enough people in the world give a damn. And it’s our job to make sure they do.”
The family behind the campaign
Alongside their mother, twin 10-year-olds Menabe and Yilak and 17-year-old Holly (also known as Helawit) have been campaigning to bring their father home. Every year on his birthday, the family holds a demonstration outside Downing Street.
Yemi said: “It’s been very inspirational that the children have taken it on the way they have, but it’s also been sad, because I do feel like they’ve been robbed of their childhood and they don’t have a very normal life right now. And that breaks my heart.”
On Sundays, the family light candles in their home. They have performed plays, written songs, and made media appearances. The children have penned letters to the Prime Minister, the Queen, and Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London.
Yemi says that the reply she received from Boris Johnson was one of the kinder ones. However, he said he was unable to help, as he did not have the remit of the Foreign Office.
Two years later, and Boris Johnson is the Foreign Secretary. Reprieve, Yemi, and the British public will now be putting pressure on Boris Johnson to act. Yemi said: “Now that he does have the remit, he definitely has the power to decide whether he wants him home or not.”
A tale of two governments
Eight months ago, the UK government received assurances that Andy Tsege, would get access to a lawyer. That has not yet happened.
Andy has been labelled a terrorist by the Ethiopian government under an ‘Anti-Terrorism Proclamation’ that human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, have said is a tool to crush dissent. The law has also been used to convict journalists and political opposition leaders within Ethiopia.
Yemi said: “They brought out this anti-terrorism proclamation, which has been rubbished by different governments including the UK. It’s a way of silencing opposition basically. I have been very vocal in what I think about what they’re doing to Andy, and I have also now been labelled a terrorist.”
The family has been denied access into Ethiopia.
Yemi said she is not surprised at the actions of the Ethiopian government: “What absolutely shocks me is the UK government, and why they are appeasing such behaviour.”
She said that her partner is a supporter of ‘British values,’ and as such wanted democracy and better lives for Ethiopians: “It’s not his making at all, he’s not a criminal, there’s absolutely no reason why he should be languishing in prison.”
Preparing to launch a nationwide campaign calling on the British public, Reprieve said: “Andy’s got one life, and it’s our job to make sure people don’t forget him.”