The partner of a British father-of-three being held on death row after he was spirited into Ethiopia has accused the Government of “dodging its obligations” by insisting it has no grounds for demanding his release.
Andargachew “Andy” Tsege, 59, was arrested at an airport in Yemen in June, and vanished for a fortnight until he reappeared in Ethiopian detention facing a death sentence imposed five years ago after a trial held in his absence.
The Foreign Office is now facing legal action after it classified Mr Tsege’s arbitrary disappearance and removal to Ethiopia as “questionable but not a criminal matter” and said that despite the risk of torture and the ultimate sanction hanging over him it did not feel “entitled” to demand he be returned home to London.
Yemi Hailemariam, Mr Tsege's partner and the mother of their three children, told The Independent she was deeply concerned that Britain was soft-pedalling on his case to preserve its relationship with an increasingly important ally in east Africa.
Mr Tsege, who came to Britain as a political refugee in 1979 and is a prominent dissident campaigning against the Ethiopian regime, is feared by Ms Hailemariam and the legal charity Reprieve to be at extreme risk of torture. Electrocution, beatings and abuse, which includes tying bottles of water to men’s testicles, have been reported by detainees, and Mr Tsege’s whereabouts has not been revealed by the Ethiopian authorities.
Ms Hailemariam said: “For anyone reading what has happened, it must be clear that Andy is the victim of a crime. He was kidnapped to Ethiopia and faces the death sentence from a trial where he wasn’t even represented. He is a political prisoner.
“The Foreign Office is dodging its obligations and it is hard to see any other reason than it is to preserve Britain’s wider relationship with Ethiopia. It is now 117 days that he has been in detention and Britain must now say enough is enough.”
Reprieve, which has taken up Mr Tsege’s case, said it was starting legal action against the Government, potentially leading to a judicial review, to force it to press for the Briton’s immediate release and repatriation.
Maya Foa, director of the Reprieve’s death penalty team, said: “Andy Tsege is now well into his fourth month of detention and, incredibly, we are no closer to knowing where he is or even whether the Ethiopians plan to execute him. The UK Government’s unwillingness to take action is simply unacceptable.”
The father-of-three was en route to Eritrea when he was arrested during a two-hour stop over in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, at the apparent request of the Ethiopian authorities, who seem to have had foreknowledge of Mr Tsege’s travel arrangements.
The Yemeni authorities have claimed the arrest and subsequent transfer of the Briton to Ethiopia - without any opportunity to challenge the move - took place on the basis of a security agreement between the two countries.
In a letter to lawyers for Ms Hailemariam, seen by The Independent, the FCO said it accepted “due process” did not appear to have been followed in the case but said his disappearance did not amount to a “kidnapping”.
It added that it required evidence that a British national was not being treated “in line with internationally accepted standards” before it could consider approaching local authorities. The letter said: “On the information presently available, the Foreign Secretary does not consider that the United Kingdom is entitled to demand Mr Tsege’s release or his return.”
Ms Hailemariam said: “Andy has been abducted and placed on death row on the basis of a politically motivated trial. It is difficult to think of circumstances that would fall further below ‘internationally-accepted standards’. What will it take for Britain to demand the return of one of its citizens?”
A FCO spokesman said: “The British Embassy in Ethiopia remains in contact with the Ethiopian authorities about regular consular access to Mr Tsege in the future so we’re able to continue to monitor his welfare. We also continue to press for reassurances that the death penalty imposed in absentia will not be carried out.”
The Independent revealed earlier this month that public money is being used to train security forces in Ethiopia under a £2m programme run by the Department for International Development (DfID) to fund masters degrees for 75 Ethiopian officials on improving the accountability of security services.
Material on the DfID website explaining the scheme has since been removed, prompting Reprieve to write to International Development Secretary Justine Greening asking whether the policy is under review or has been erased “to avoid embarrassment”.
DfID admitted it had cancelled the masters courses due to “concerns about risk and value for money”. A source said the decision was not linked to the case of Mr Tsege.