Andergachew Tsige: Ethiopian brutality, UK apathy
On 23 June 2014 Andergachew Tsige was illegally detained at Sanaa airport in Yemen while travelling 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 held incommunicado in a secret location inside Ethiopia. His “crime” is the same as hundreds – perhaps thousands – of other’s: publicly criticising the ruling party of Ethiopia and its brutal form of governance.
Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Andergachew arrived in Britain aged 24 as a political refugee. He is a British citizen, 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 GBP 376 million a year in aid) has done little or nothing to secure this innocent man’s release, or ensure his humane 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 among Tsige’s supporters. Is the FCO’s apathy due to his colour, 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 is) and forged the right social connections, would he be languishing in an Ethiopian prison, where he is almost certainly being tortured, abused and mistreated?
Tsige is the secretary general of Ginbot 7, a campaign group which fiercely opposes the policies of the Ethiopian 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 justice and 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 criminalised 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 are almost exclusively state owned, internet access (which at 2 per cent of the population is the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa) is monitored and restricted. The government would criminalise thought if it 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-Terrorism 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, which has dutifully signed up to all manner of international covenants but ignores 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. It rules, 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 the 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.
Andergachew Tsige is a UK citizen and the UK government has a constitutional and moral responsibility to act energetically and forcefully on his behalf. But to its shame, so far the FCO and the coalition government has been consistently woeful in its 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 abandoned after a meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador. A member of the team, Lord Dholakia, the 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: Andergachew is yet to be formally charged, has been denied contact with his British solicitors and consular support, and has received only one brief visit from the British ambassador, in August – a meeting controlled fully by the Ethiopians. The FCO has said it “remain deeply concerned about Ethiopia’s refusal to allow regular consular visits to Mr Tsege and his lack of access to a lawyer, and are concerned that others seeking to visit him have also been refused access”. So, why are you not acting, 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 says and acts not, is it not guilty of aiding and abetting such actions? If governments give funds to a ruling party – the EPRDF – that is killing, raping, imprisoning and torturing its own citizens, and they do and say nothing – as the British and the US governments, and the European Union do, even though they know what’s happening – they are, it is clear, complicit in the crimes being committed.