Boris Johnson defends stance on death-row Brit, amid MP criticism

December 15, 2016

Image of Andy Tsege at Arsenal with his daughter

The Foreign Secretary has issued a statement defending his refusal to seek the release of a British man who is held under an unlawful death sentence in Ethiopia.

In an open letter released today, Boris Johnson wrote that the British government was taking the case of British national Andargachew ‘Andy’ Tsege “extremely seriously.”

The letter failed to mention that Mr Tsege’s case is unusual in comparison to other UK consular cases. Mr Tsege was kidnapped whilst traveling through an international airport in June 2014 by Ethiopian forces, and taken illegally to a prison in Ethiopia. He remains in detention, under an unlawful sentence of death that was imposed in absentia while he was living in London, in 2009. The death sentence was handed down in relation to his opposition to the Ethiopian government.

British consular access to Mr Tsege has been severely limited, and there are fears for his wellbeing in detention. Mr Tsege’s partner and children in London have not spoken directly to him for 2 years.

The Foreign Secretary has faced criticism for his refusal to seek Mr Tsege’s return to the UK, and today’s letter comes as MPs from all parties prepare to hold a Parliamentary debate on the case next Tuesday (20th).

In his letter, addressed to “all those who have contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in recent months” concerning the case, Mr Johnson said that the Government’s aim continued to be “to ensure Mr Tsege’s wellbeing and access to legal advice, and to ensure that the death sentence is not carried out.” The letter appeared to confirm that the Foreign Office’s approach to the case has not changed since 2014, despite a lack of progress.

Mr Johnson’s letter did not address concerns over the illegality of Mr Tsege’s treatment by Ethiopia. He said: “I am aware of the suggestion that the UK Government should directly call for Mr Tsege’s release. As my predecessor has previously stated, Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions, any more than we would accept interference in our judicial system.”

International human rights organization Reprieve, Mr Tsege’s family, and MPs – including former Attorney General Dominic Grieve – have argued that, given Mr Tsege was kidnapped, rendered, and sentenced to death in his absence, the Government should request his return home to London. Reprieve has also pointed out that the Foreign Office has previously secured the release of other British nationals held abroad.

Torture is common in Ethiopian prisons, and the authorities have broadcast videos of Mr Tsege being ‘interrogated’, in which he looks thin and exhausted. Concerns for Mr Tsege have grown in recent weeks, amid a worsening crackdown on political dissent in Ethiopia. He is held in a prison that has been referred to as “Ethiopia’s gulag.”

Commenting, Maya Foa, a director at Reprieve, said:

“It appears Boris Johnson has either forgotten or deliberately omitted to mention that Andy Tsege, a British father of three, is the victim of a kidnap by a foreign state. Andy was abducted in an international airport by forces acting at the behest of the Ethiopian government, and he’s spent over two years on death row in Ethiopia’s gulag. He now faces another Christmas away from his family in London. The Foreign Secretary must acknowledge that this is no ordinary consular case, and take urgent steps to bring Andy home to the UK.”


Notes to editors

1. Reprieve is an international human rights organization. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on: communications [at] / +44 (0) 207 553 8140. Reprieve US, based in New York City, can be contacted on Katherine [dot] oshea [at] / +1 917 855 8064.

2. Mr Johnson’s letter can be seen here.

3. Further detail on Mr Tsege’s case can be found on the Reprieve website, here.

4. More information about Kality prison (‘Ethiopia’s gulag’) is available here.

5. The Parliamentary debate on Mr Tsege’s case takes place next Tuesday 20th at 9.30am in Westminster Hall. More   details are here.