10 February 2017
“Next year, we’ll be celebrating with Andy!” In a freezing cold Whitehall last night, Yemi Hailemariam was defiant.
On her partner’s 62nd birthday, she and their three children knocked on the door of 10 Downing Street and handed over a demand – signed by 28,000 as of this morning – for his freedom.
Andy Tsege, of Upper Holloway, was a democratic and human rights activist in his native Ethiopia until he fled to the UK as a political refugee in 1979. He had lived here ever since, becoming a citizen.
But he wasn’t forgotten in Ethiopia. At a trial in 2009, a death sentence was passed in his absence.
And in June 2014, while waiting to catch a flight to Eritrea, Andy was abducted at an airport in Yemen and unlawfully handed over to Ethiopia.
“It was horrible,” 48-year-old Yemi told the Gazette outside Downing Street, “knowing he had been thrown into the lion’s den. We knew what the Ethiopian government thought of him, so it was very scary – and still is.
“The dramatic way in which the whole thing happened scared us. There had been a blackout for a week as no one knew where he was.
“I was in Camden High Street, on the way to see a lawyer, when I found out about the kidnap. The Foreign Office called me. I just remember screaming.”
It is Yemi and her three children who are still picking up the pieces.
“It’s hard – it takes up all my time and energy. The kids are getting angry at being without their dad. You’re constantly wondering how it’s all going to end. We just have to focus on resolving this.”
Emily Thornberry, the Islington South and Finsbury MP and shadow foreign secretary, joined the 100-strong crowd in Whitehall for a rendition of “happy birthday” for Andy.
She demanded the Foreign Office, and her foreign secretary counterpart Boris Johnson, does more.
Mrs Thornberry told the Gazette: “I simply cannot believe that the British government does not have sufficient power and influence to ensure we get a British citizen back to this country.
“The way he has been treated has been absolutely appalling. He was originally seized in a way that was illegal, and I think the British government is simply not trying hard enough.
“It’s something Boris should be ashamed of – and needs to sort out. He can’t let this continue. I’ve had meetings with him about it. They are all very pleasant, talking about the difficulties the Foreign Office has. But it is simply not taking a strong enough line. And we are not going to forget.”
Yemi, who now lives in St John Street, Clerkenwell, added: “I find it sad that I’m still fighting the Foreign Office. You would think it would be on your side. But there’s never any clarity. Whereas I think it’s simple: you can’t allow other countries to abduct your citizens.
“We are here to support him and show he’s not alone. We’d like to remind Theresa May that a British national is going through an ordeal he shouldn’t be going through. He’s not a criminal and his government should stand up for him.”
Smiling at how they met through a friend in Archway, Yemi described Andy as “very mild mannered. Very well read. He has clarity in his aspirations for Ethiopia. He loves to write, is a great story teller and loves blues music”.
She was joined in Whitehall by friends, neighbours and MPs and campaigners. Jeremy Corbyn, in Manchester on Thursday, has campaigned with her from the very beginning. And Yemi said the support helps to ease her suffering.
“It’s really moving. They feel the pain and people have real empathy.
“It shows they get it – and that makes me feel better.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Andargachew Tsege’s imprisonment in Ethiopia, and the fact he still does not have access to a lawyer after more than a year, is a serious concern and the UK government will do all we can to make sure his rights are protected.
“We have provided significant support to Mr Tsege and his family since he was first taken to Ethiopia, and the foreign secretary met with his partner this week to reaffirm our commitment to his case.
“We have already secured his transfer from solitary confinement to a federal prison and have been able to visit him a number of times, and we remain committed to ensuring his ongoing welfare.
“The foreign secretary has personally made it clear to the Ethiopian Government that Mr Tsege must be given access to legal representation, as previously agreed by Prime Minister Hailemariam.
“We will continue to press them on this matter until they deliver against their commitment.”