On June 23, 2014, Andargachew Tsige was illegally detained at Sana’a airport in Yemen while traveling from Dubai to Eritrea on his British passport. He was swiftly handed over to the Ethiopian authorities, who had for years posted his name at the top of the regime’s most-wanted list. Since then, he has been detained incommunicado in a secret location inside Ethiopia. His “crime” is the same as hundreds, perhaps thousands of others: publicly criticizing the ruling party of Ethiopia and their brutal form of governance.
Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Andargachew Tsige arrived in Britain at 24 as a political refugee. He is a Black, working-class British citizen with a wife and three children. Despite repeated efforts by his family and the wider Ethiopian community – including demonstrations, petitions and a legal challenge – the British government (which is the third biggest donor to Ethiopia, giving around £376 million a year in aid), has done little or nothing to secure this innocent man’s release, or to ensure his safe treatment while in detention.
After nine months of official indifference, trust and faith in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is giving way to cynicism and anger amongst Tsige’s supporters. Is the FCO’s apathy due to his color, his “type” or “level” of Britishness? Is there a hierarchy of citizenship in Britain? If he had been born in England, to white, middle-class parents, attended the right schools (educated privately as over half the British cabinet was) and forged the right social connections, would he be languishing in an Ethiopian prison, where he is almost certainly being tortured, abused and mistreated?
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Tsige is the secretary general of Ginbot 7, a peaceful campaign group which fiercely opposes the policies of theEthiopian party-state, controlled for 24 years by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It highlights the regime’s many and varied human rights violations and calls for adherence to liberal ideals of justiceand freedom, as enshrined in the country’s constitution – a broadly democratic piece of fiction which is consistently ignored by the ruling party (even through the EPRDF wrote it).
Political dissent inside Ethiopia has been criminalized in all but name by the EPRDF. Freedom of assembly, of expression and of the media, are all denied. So too, is affiliation to opposition parties. Aid that flows through the government is distributed on a partisan basis, so too employment opportunities and university places. The media is almost exclusively state-owned. Internet access (which, at 2 percent of the population, is the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa), is monitored and restricted; the government would criminalize thought if they could.
The population lives under suffocating repression and fear, and the vast majority appear to despise the government. Human rights are ignored and acts of state violence – some of which, according to human rights groups, constitute crimes against humanity – are commonplace. Such is the reality of life inside the country for the vast majority. It is this stifling reality of daily suffering which drives Tsige and other members of Ginbot 7, forcing them to speak out – action that has cost him his liberty.
For challenging the EPRDF in 2009 and 2012, he was charged under the notorious Anti-Terrorist Proclamation of 2009, tried in absentia and given the death penalty. The judiciary in Ethiopia is constitutionally and morally bound to independence, but in practice it operates as an unjust arm of the EPRDF. A trial where the defendant is not present violates the second principle of natural justice, audi alteram partem (hear the other party) – and is therefore illegitimate. Such legal niceties, however, mean nothing to the EPRDF, who have dutifully signed up to all manner of international covenants, but ignore them all. The regime likes trying its detractors who live overseas (activists, journalists, political opponents) in their absence and securing outrageous judgements against them, particularly the death penalty or life imprisonment. They rule, as all such groups do, by the cultivation of that ancient tool of control: fear.
Given the nature of the EPRDF government, little in the way of justice, compassion and fairness can be expected in relation to Tsige, or indeed anyone else in custody. Self-deluding and immune to criticism, the EPRDF distorts the truth and justifies violent acts of repression and false imprisonment as safeguarding their country from “terrorism.” The only form of terrorism rampaging through Ethiopia is state terrorism, perpetrated by the EPRDF and its vicious thugs, in and out of uniform.
Andargachew Tsige is a UK citizen and the UK government has a constitutional and moral responsibility to act energetically and forcefully on his behalf. To their shame, so far, the FCO and the coalition government more broadly, have been consistently woeful in their efforts. In February a delegation of parliamentarians, led by Jeremy Corbyn, Tsige’s local MP, was due to visit Ethiopia in an effort to secure his release. But the trip was abandonedafter a meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador. A member of the team, Lord Dholakia, vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia, said it was made clear that they would not be welcome: The ambassador reportedly told them “that there was no need for them to go to Ethiopia as the case is being properly handled by the courts.”
Again, nonsense. Andargachew Tsige is yet to be formally charged, has been denied contact with his Britishsolicitors (as well as consular support), and has received only one brief visit from the British ambassador in August, in a meeting controlled fully by the Ethiopians. The FCO has said it “remain[s] deeply concerned about Ethiopia’s refusal to allow regular consular visits to Mr. [Tsige] and his lack of access to a lawyer, and [is] concerned that others seeking to visit him have also been refused access.” So why are you not acting, not using your “special” position to secure this innocent man’s release? Do something, is the cry of the family, the community and all right-minded people.
At what point does neglect in the face of injustice and abuse become complicity? If a government allows illegal detention and the violation of international justice to take place and does not act, are they not guilty in aiding andabetting such actions? If governments give funds to a ruling party – the EPRDF – that is killing, raping, imprisoningand torturing its own citizens, and they do and say nothing – as the UK, the US and the EU do, even though they know what’s happening – they are, it is clear, complicit in the crimes being committed.