Obama tells Ethiopia: uphold rule of law – Reprieve comment

July 28, 2015

Image of Andy Tsege and his family

President Barack Obama has told the African Union that Ethiopia must respect the rights of journalists and dissenting voices, as a leading opposition activist spent his 399th day in secret detention there.

Andargachew ‘Andy’ Tsege – a British father of three, whose partner and children are US citizens – has spent the past 399 days in a secret prison in Ethiopia, after being rendered to the country by Ethiopian and Yemeni forces in June 2014. Throughout his 13 months in detention, Mr Tsege has not been allowed contact with a lawyer, and has spoken to his family only once. He faces a death sentence handed down in absentia in 2009 in relation to his political activities, and there are fears that he is being tortured. In an interview with the BBC broadcast this morning, his partner Yemi said it was “hard to tell how he’s being treated.”

Speaking today at an African Union summit in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, President Obama said that he had told Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, that “democracy is not just formal elections. When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, when activists are threatened – you may have democracy in name but not in substance.” He added that “stifled voices” can “fuel instability”, and called on African countries, including Ethiopia, to uphold the rule of law” and be “committed to inclusive elections”. He concluded that “Africa’s progress will depend on upholding the human rights of all people.”

The President appeared to be responding to widespread criticism of his comments yesterday that Ethiopia’s recent elections had been democratic. Mr Tsege’s ordeal is part of a broad crackdown on dissent by the country’s authorities in the run-up to the May 2015 vote, which the ruling party won by an overwhelming majority.

Mr Tsege has previously traveled to Washington DC to speak about human rights concerns in Ethiopia, telling Congress in 2006 that “the scale of repression [by the current government] has exceeded Ethiopia’s darkest hours during the military dictatorship.”

Commenting, Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said:

“President Obama’s message today was clear: the Ethiopian government must halt its persecution of journalists and opposition activists. This includes releasing people like Andy Tsege, a father of three who has been held incommunicado – and likely tortured – for 399 days, under sentence of death for the ‘crime’ of his belief in democracy. Obama is right to suggest that Ethiopia will only move forward if it upholds the rule of law, and stops stifling critical voices like Andy’s. The Ethiopian authorities must show they are listening, and free Andy and the many others like him.”


Notes to editors

1. For more information, please contact Reprieve’s press office: alice [DOT] gillham [AT] reprieve.org.uk or +44 (0) 207 553 8140

2. Copies of Mr Tsege’s 2006 testimony to Congress are available on request.

3. Further information on Mr Tsege’s case is available at the Reprieve website.