Tony Blair urged to intervene in case of British father on Ethiopia’s death row

Exclusive: Andy Tsege’s family say former PM's close ties to Ethiopian government mean he is ‘uniquely placed’ to succeed where the current UK government has failed

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has been urged to use his close ties to the Ethiopian government to secure the release of a British father languishing on the African country’s death row.

The family of Andargachew Tsege has written to the former Prime Minister asking him to help save the father of three, who was sentenced to death in absentia for being part of the political opposition, then kidnapped and illegally rendered to Ethiopia two years ago.

Fears for Mr Tsege’s fate have been heightened by the Ethiopian government’s declaration of a state of emergency, and rights groups say more than 500 political protesters have been killed in clashes with police since unrest flared up in November last year.

While British officials have privately expressed concern at Mr Tsege’s “completely unacceptable” treatment at the hands of the Ethiopian government, the UK refuses to call for his release in public. The Foreign Office did claim to have secured Mr Tsege access to a lawyer, but the Ethiopian authorities are yet to fulfil that promise.

Mr Blair was briefed on the case when he visited Addis Abiba in May this year, and a spokesperson for Mr Blair told The Independent the matter was “raised” during the trip.

But since then, there has been no improvement in Mr Tsege’s situation. Reprieve, a rights group which is working with Mr Tsege’s family, told The Independent Mr Blair should use his “advisory role with the Ethiopian government” to call for the father’s release “without delay”.

Ethiopia is one of a number of countries on the continent with an embedded team of advisors from Mr Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, for which Save The Children awarded him its “Global Legacy” prize in 2014.

In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, Mr Blair hinted at a possible return to British politics and said he was winding down his consultancy businesses.

In a letter, seen by The Independent, Mr Tsege’s partner Yemi Hailemariam said the former Prime Minister was “uniquely placed to send a strong message to Ethiopia that democracy and human rights are the cornerstone of strong government”.

“l’m sure that, as a father, you can imagine what kind of impact Andy’s kidnap has had on our three children, who live with me in lslington,” she wrote. “Our lives have turned upside down. We are trying desperately to keep some normality, but failing miserably.”

“I recall the close links that you forged with Ethiopia’s government during your premiership, and I believe that your voice is taken extremely seriously by the Ethiopian government. You therefore have an opportunity to help to end this nightmare for our family, and bring Andy home to us.”

Mr Tsege moved to the UK and was granted political asylum in 1979, and has lived in Britain ever since.

He continued to organise political opposition to the authoritative regime from afar, and in 2009 was convicted of terrorism offences in absentia, and sentenced to death.

Of the terror charges, British officials have said they “have not been shown any evidence [against Mr Tsege] that would stand up in a UK court”.

US diplomats who attended the in absentia sentencing said it was “lacking in basic elements of due process” and a form of “political retaliation”. 

Maya Foa, a director at Reprieve, told The Independent that Mr Blair’s advisory role with the Ethiopian government had “helped the country’s leaders boost their international image, amid an extreme deterioration of the human rights situation”. 

“Andy is imprisoned in Ethiopia under a sentence of death, which was handed down in absentia while he was living in London,” she said. 

“Andy’s family have been through a heartbreaking ordeal – Mr Blair must listen to them, and urge the Ethiopian authorities to release this British father without delay.” 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Office of Tony Blair said: “Mr. Blair was briefed on the case and he raised it with the Prime Minister. He will respond to the letter, which was sent to the AGI charity office and he has only just received.”

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Andy Tsege with his partner, Yemi Hailemariam, and their three children

Andy’s partner’s letter to Tony Blair in full:

Dear Mr Tony Blair,

My name is Yemi Hailemariam and my partner Andargachew ‘Andy’ Tsege is currently held in Ethiopia, facing execution. Andy, a British citizen and the father of our three kids, is a well-known and vocal critic of the Ethiopian government. I understand that the Foreign Office alerted you to his situation when you went to Ethiopia to meet with the country's leaders in May this year.

Andy has long called for democracy in Ethiopia, and several years ago, when you were Prime Minister, he helped to found an opposition party. ln June 2014, he was kidnapped from Sanaa airport and taken illegally to a secret prison in the country by Ethiopian forces. He’s been held in Ethiopia ever since, under a sentence of death that was imposed in absentia in 2009. US diplomats observing the 2009 in absentia trial said it was an act of “political retaliation to further entrench the stifling of political opposition” in Ethiopia.

You will surely be aware that in the last few years, Ethiopia's ruling party, the EPDRF, has shown no tolerance for any criticism of its governance. Since just before the Ethiopian elections in spring 2015, the authorities have escalated their crackdown on journalists, protestors and opposition party members such as Andy. The EPRDF won 100% of parliamentary seats last year, and since then, the repression has only worsened.

l’m sure that, as a father, you can imagine what kind of impact Andy’s kidnap has had on our three children, who live with me in Islington. Our lives have turned upside down. We are trying desperately to keep some normality, but failing miserably.

In the over 2 years since his abduction, Andy has not been charged with any crime, and we as well as the British embassy have had only very limited access to him. Ethiopia’s leaders have ignored the UK’s requests for assurances that his in-absentia death sentence will not be carried out, and the authorities have not let him see a lawyer – despite a promise made by the Ethiopian Prime Minister to the Foreign secretary several months ago. The UN’s experts on torture and arbitrary detention have strongly called for Andy’s release, as have parliamentarians in the US, UK and in Brussels.

I understand that since at least 2015, you have been working closely with the Ethiopian government through your organisation, the Africa Governance initiative. I note that AGI recently opened a new office in Addis Ababa, and says it is “working in partnership with senior leaders and their staff at the heart of [Ethiopia’s] government.”

I’m sure you’ll agree that the terrible repression we are currently seeing in Ethiopia has no place in a modern government. I believe that Ethiopia’s treatment of Andy, and the worsening human rights situation in the country, shows that the Ethiopian government has no interest in the good governance that AGI aims to promote.

I recall the close links that you forged with Ethiopia’s government during your premiership, and I believe that your voice is taken extremely seriously by the Ethiopian government. You therefore have an opportunity to help to end this nightmare for our family, and bring Andy home to us in London. You are also uniquely placed to send a strong message to Ethiopia that democracy and human rights are the cornerstone of strong government.

I would like to ask you, therefore, to inform Ethiopia’s leaders that AGI will no longer advise the government unless they release Andy and the many other activists, journalists and protestors held illegally in Ethiopia, and commit to political freedoms in the country. 

Please, Mr Blair, intervene on this issue, and help bring Andy home to his family in London. lf you require any further information about Andy’s case or our family, I would be very happy to meet with your office to discuss this in detail.

Yours,

Yemi Hailemariam

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