US and European officials urge Ethiopia to release Andy Tsege

Andargachew "Andy" Tsege posing with his two of his three children.Reprieve

Andargachew “Andy” Tsege posing with his two of his three children.Reprieve

The father of three and lifelong crusader for democracy has been in secret detention for more than a year

August 7, 2015, by Amel Ahmed — Politicians from the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union have sent a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn urging the release of British citizen Andargachew “Andy” Tsege, a political activist who has been held incommunicado for more than a year and has been sentenced to death.

The father of three was on his way to Eritrea to attend an opposition conference on June 23, 2014 when he was detained in Sana’a, Yemen, during a layover, at the behest of the Ethiopian government.

Tsege, 60, a former secretary-general of a banned opposition party, had already been sentenced to death in absentia by an Ethiopian court in 2009.

The letter, obtained only by Al Jazeera, criticizes the Ethiopian authorities for conducting a “deeply flawed” trial and demands the release of Tsege, who is kept in solitary confinement and subjected to artificial light 24 hours a day.

“You have emphasized in the past Ethiopia’s commitment to human rights, but it is unconscionable and illegal for your government to have targeted Mr. Tsege in this way. Your government’s treatment of him is a stain on its reputation, and threatens to isolate Ethiopia internationally,” said the letter, co-authored in June by California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Other politicians who signed off on the letter include British parliament members Jeremy Corbyn, Baron Dholakia, and Emily Thornberry along with European Parliament officials Ana Gomes and Richard Howitt.

British officials have only been permitted to see Tsege three times since his arrest in monitored visits that take place away from his jail cell, circumstances that lawyers say prevent him from speaking openly about his mistreatment.

The Independent reported that during one of those visits, in April, Tsege told Greg Dorey, the British ambassador to Ethiopia that he would prefer being executed to remaining in detention.

“Seriously, I am happy to go — it would be preferable and more humane,” Tsege reportedly said.

Yemi Hailemariam, Tsege’s partner and mother of his children, said the ordeal has left the family devasted.

“It’s dreadful, what has happened. The way he was taken, it’s really terrifying. I was hoping things would evolve quickly and he would be released, but it feels like it’s only getting worse and worse,” she told Al Jazeera America in an exclusive interview.

Concerns that he is being mistreated by Ethiopian authorities, who routinely subject political detainees to torture, grew after the Ethiopian government released videos of a gaunt and disoriented Tsege apparently confessing to a number of offenses.

UK-based legal charity Reprieve submitted the videos to an expert for analysis who concluded that Tsege exhibited signs of torture.

“The expert found that there are signs of significant deterioration in his mental condition, an indicia of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that could be the result of torture. And we already know that torture is pretty endemic at Ethiopian detention sites,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team.

She described Tsege’s arrest in Yemen and rendition to Ethiopia as a “politically motivated abduction.”

Ethiopia’s embassy in Washington and its mission in New York did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls and e-mails for comment.

Dedicated reformer

Tsege was tried in absentia in 2009 along with a group of opposition members and journalists under Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism laws, which human rights experts say are used to repress peaceful political dissent.

The charges leveled against Tsege include high treason, espionage and involvement with a terrorist organization.

He was an active member of Ginbot 7, a political party founded in the U.S. – home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa – that advocates for democratic reforms.

Ethiopia designated Ginbot 7 a terrorist group in 2011, a move that human rights experts say was meant to quash opposition.

“They are not considered a terrorist group by any government apart from the Ethiopian [government],” Foa told Al Jazeera.

She added Tsege’s arrest was part of a larger crackdown on dissent by the country’s authorities in the run-up to the May 2015 elections, in which the ruling party won by an overwhelming majority.

Human rights experts have denounced the elections as an exercise in “political theater.”

“A decade-long campaign by Ethiopia’s government to silence dissent forcibly has left the country without a viable political opposition, without independent media, and without public challenges to the ruling party’s ideology,” wrote Daniel Calingaert in The Guardian.

Calingaert is the executive vice-president of Freedom House, an International human rights organization. “For most Ethiopians, these elections are a non-event,” he added.

The ruling party – Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) – has been in power for the last 25 years, following the 1991 ouster of the country’s military junta, the Derg.

When the EPDRF ascended to power, Tsege – who sought asylum in the UK in 1979 – traveled back to Ethiopia for the first time in 20 years to help his homeland rebuild and to serve as the secretary of the Addis Ababa City Council.

He resigned from that post 18 months later, having grown disillusioned with the new government, which showed no signs of implementing genuine democratic reform, according to his partner Hailemariam.

Tsege returned to the UK, where he had become a full citizen in 2006, and although he lost his Ethiopian citizenship (dual citizenships are prohibited under Ethiopian law) he continued to advocate for change in Ethiopia from the UK.

“He never stopped believing change would come to Ethiopia. In the UK, he saw the difference between those who live in a free society and people who live in authoritarian regimes like Ethiopia. He really couldn’t let it go. Anytime he saw an opportunity to get involved, he was always involved,” said his partner, Hailemariam.

In 2005, Tsege published a book entitled Freedom Fighters Who Don’t Know What Freedom Is – a scathing indictment of the EPDRF leadership.

The following year, he traveled to Washington D.C. to speak on Ethiopia’s human rights record before a Congressional committee, telling them that “the scale of repression has exceeded Ethiopia’s darkest hours during the military dictatorship.”

Mixed messages

International human rights organizations have long criticized Ethiopia’s ruling party for its abysmal human rights record. Activists cite growing repression and the recent passage of draconian legislation that has targeted journalists and opposition parties.

A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Ethiopia as the fourth most censored country in the world, trailing behind Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

Just this week, Ethiopia imposed lengthy jail sentences on religious leaders, a journalist and 13 human rights activists, the Sudan Tribune reported on Monday.

President Barack Obama recently traveled to the East African country, a staunch ally in the so-called war on terror. During a joint press conference with the country’s prime minister, Obama called Ethiopia’s government “democratically elected.”

His comments were heavily criticized by African activists and journalists.

The next day, Obama appeared to tone down his remarks and urged African leaders to uphold democratic rights.

The seemingly conflicting remarks were questioned by rights activists.

“Yesterday he was a tricky and mischievous politician,” Yonathan Tesfaye, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s opposition Blue Party, told The Associated Press.

“And today he has become a passionate inspirational human rights activist,” Tesfaye added. “Which one should we believe? Which one should we go with?”

Tsege’s partner Hailemariam called the comments disturbing and inconsistent.

“There needs to be a clear, consistent message sent to the Ethiopian government. That you can’t violate human rights, you can’t abduct activists and take them to other countries. These are actions by a government that should be condemned, not praised,” she said.

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