Owen Bowcott Legal, affairs correspondent
Twitter : @owenbowcott
Published on May 22,2015 12.01 BST
Special rapporteur on torture asks UK and Ethiopian governments about detention of Andargachew Tsige amid claims of ill-treatment
The detention of a British citizen held on death row in Ethiopia for almost a year is being investigated by the United Nations official responsible for preventing torture.
Andargachew Tsige was arrested last June while in transit through Yemen’s main airport and forcibly removed to Addis Ababa. He is the leader of an opposition party and had been condemned to death several years earlier in his absence.
Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, has written to the Ethiopian and UK governments saying he is investigating the treatment of Tsige. There are claims Tsige is being deprived of sleep and held in isolation.
His partner, Yemi Hailemariam, also a British national, who lives in London with their three children, said she had only spoken to him once by telephone since his abduction. “He’s in prison but we have no idea where he is being held,” she said. “He said he was OK but I’m sure the call was being listened to.
“He had been in Dubai and was flying on to Eritrea when the plane stopped over in Yemen. He hadn’t even been through immigration. We think Yemeni security took him and handed him over to the Ethiopians.
“They say there was an extradition agreement but it was so quick there was no time for any semblance of a legal hearing. Yemen and Ethiopia had close relations then. The [Ethiopian] government have put him on television three times in heavily edited interviews, saying he was revealing secrets
“He has been kept under artificial light 24 hours a day and no one [other than the UK ambassador] has had access to him. I feel angry with the Foreign Office. They know they could do more. They have political leverage they could use but have not done so.”
Tsige, 60, known as Andy, had previously been secretary general of Ginbot 7, a political opposition party that called for democracy, free elections and civil rights. He first came to the UK in 1979. The Ethiopian government has accused him of being a terrorist. In 2009, he was tried with others in his absence and sentenced to death.
No effort was made to extradite him to face the court. A US embassy cable, released through WikiLeaks, described the trial as “lacking in basic elements of due process”.
“[Andy] is a politician, not a terrorist,” said Hailemariam. “It’s just the Ethiopian government that thinks it does not need to make any space for the opposition. A delegation of British MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, were stopped from travelling to Ethiopia in February. They are hoping to try again.”
Hailemariam’s dissatisfaction with the UK government’s response follows the release of internal Foreign Office memorandums earlier this year that appeared to show official reluctance to apply pressure on Ethiopia to obtain Tsige’s release.
The UK prime minister, David Cameron, has, however, written a letter to his Ethiopian counterpart, Hailemariam Desalegn, raising concerns about Tsige.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The foreign secretary has raised this case with the Ethiopian foreign minister on 13 separate occasions. We will continue to lobby at all levels, conveying our concern over Andargachew Tsige being detained without regular consular visits and access to a lawyer.”
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team said: “Andy Tsige was illegally kidnapped and rendered to Ethiopia, where he has now been held in a secret location for nearly a year. The UN special rapporteur is right to raise concerns about torture – especially given Ethiopia’s terrible record on human rights, and their denial of any meaningful consular access.
“It is crucial that the British government now takes stronger action on this case. The way Andy has been treated is in serious violation of international law and the most basic principles of justice – the UK must push for his immediate release.”
Tsige’s lawyer, the barrister Ben Cooper of Doughty Street chambers, said: “[He] was abducted at an international airport, hooded and rendered to Ethiopia, where he has been held incommunicado under a death sentence that was passed unlawfully in his absence. He remains in isolation nearly a year later with only occasional access to the open air.
“His detention violates all minimum standards of treatment. We ask the Foreign Office to follow the lead of the UN special rapporteur on torture to demand an immediate end to Mr Tsege’s torture by seeking his return home to his family in England. This is a clear case of kidnap and should be treated as such.”
Elections are taking place in Ethiopia this weekend. Tsige’s family hopes the government will relax restrictions on the opposition once voting is over.
In a lengthy statement, the Ethiopian embassy said that Ginbot 7 had been proscribed a terrorist organisation by the country’s parliament. Tsige, as general secretary, it added, was charged with “conspiring to perpetrate terror and violence in Ethiopia by planning, training, financing, and organising terrorist recruits in Eritrea” and found guilty of “conspiring and working with and under Ginbot 7, to overthrow the legitimate government of Ethiopia through terrorist acts”.
Following conviction and sentence, the embassy continued, the government sent a formal request of assistance to those states with which Ethiopia has an extradition treaty, requesting them to transfer all sentenced individuals in the event of their presence on their territory.
“It was on the basis of this request, and the existing extradition treaty with the Republic of Yemen, that [he] was extradited to Ethiopia. Accordingly, [he] is currently in detention at the federal prison,” it said.
The statement added: “Mr Tsige was serving as a Trojan horse, assisting the Eritrean government’s repeated and ongoing attempts to wreak havoc and instability in the sub-region. Mr Tsige is well-treated and has received visits from the British ambassador to Ethiopia. He has also spoken to his family on the phone.”