Andy Tsege - a British citizen held illegally on death row in Ethiopia for nearly four years - has finally been freed as a result of a campaign by his family. After receiving a pardon from the Ethiopian government, he has just arrived home in the UK, writes Lush Times reporter Katie Dancey-Downs
Placed carefully over her heart, it has become an everyday habit for Yemi Hailemariam to wear a “Free Andy Tsege” pin badge. The last four years of her life have been consumed by the campaign to set her partner, Andy, free from his death row cell in Ethiopia, after he was kidnapped by Ethiopian authorities at an airport. Yemi has put everything into the fight to bring Andy home, and so have her three children. Today, the pin badge can stay on the dressing table. Andy Tsege is free.
As Andy steps into the arrivals hall at Heathrow, his son Yilak runs into his arms. It is the first embrace between the father and son for four years.
Shouts of “Andy! Yes!” come from the crowd waiting to greet him. His daughter Menabe, waiting with a sign saying, “Welcome home Daddy!” can barely keep an enormous smile from spreading across her face.
The first piece of news arrived at the weekend. On 26th May 2018, Ethiopia pardoned Andy Tsege, a vocal critic of its Government, who has previously called for democracy in the country. Today, he has arrived home.
Human rights organisation Reprieve says Andy has been set free as a result of his family’s four-year campaign.
On hearing the news of Andy’s release at the weekend, Yemi described her emotions as being so intense that she actually ached. When she spoke to Andy on the phone, she could barely form words.
“Unbelievable,” she repeated, over and over. And she kept saying his name, feeling that word form in her mouth as if for the first time. Andy her partner. Andy the father to her children. Andy the free man.
When Yemi gathered her children Holly, Menabe, and Yilak, to tell them that they would see their father again, they all cried together.
As Andy left the prison in Ethiopia, he was met with cheering crowds, celebrating his release.
“I am extremely happy,” he says, turning his back on the prison. “I am happy beyond words. I did not expect such a crowd would welcome me, never.”
Andy has seen nothing but the inside of a cell, ever since he was kidnapped by Ethiopian authorities in 2014, when he was changing planes at an international airport. He was bound, hooded, and put on a plane to Ethiopia. Andy 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 was also told he had no chance of appeal.
A fight worth fighting
Human rights organisation Reprieve has been campaigning hard for Andy’s release. As a prominent figure in Ethiopian opposition politics, Andy sought political asylum in Britain in 1979, fearing for his safety. He later became a British citizen.
In March 2017, Reprieve joined with Lush to run a nationwide campaign, asking the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to negotiate the safe return of Andy. Over 63,000 people signed a petition, and people went to Lush stores all across the country to sign postcards addressed to the Foreign Secretary, calling for Andy’s release.
At the time, Reprieve founder, the human rights campaigner Clive Stafford Smith said the UK government had been “doing nothing meaningful” to end the situation.
He added: “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, Boris Johnson said: “Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions.”
To mark the day that Andy spent his thousandth day on death row, his family took their campaign to the Foreign Office. Flanked by giant orange postcards, his children and their classmates filled the streets of Westminster with the sound of songs of protest. From the Foreign Office, an answer came there none.
“We miss our dad and we shouldn’t have to miss him,” read a postcard signed by his daughter Holly, who was 17 at the time.
Now, the days of protest are over. Alongside his partner Yemi, Andy Tsege’s three children have spent nearly four years of their childhood fighting to save their father from death row in Ethiopia, and they have won. He is home.
What could be more welcoming than a family which has dedicated itself so completely to fighting for him, and thousands of British people who didn’t know him, but felt moved enough to join the campaign to bring him home.
Watch the moment Andy Tsege arrives at Heathrow here.
Images courtesy of Reprieve.