Obama highlights Ethiopia human rights concerns: Reprieve comment

July 27, 2015

President Barack Obama has told a press conference in Ethiopia that human rights in the country are a “core concern”, as a leading opposition activist entered his 14th month in secret detention there.

Speaking at a press conference with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, Mr Obama said that human rights concerns had been a “significant” topic in their talks, and one that the US would “continually bring up”. He told the Ethiopian government that it must “open up space” for “opposition voices.”

Mr Obama’s comments came as leading opposition activist Andargachew ‘Andy’ Tsege – a British father of three whose partner and children are US citizens – entered his 14th month of detention. Mr Tsege, who faces a death sentence handed down in absentia in 2009 in relation to his political activities, was forcibly taken to Ethiopia in June 2014 while he waited for a connecting flight at a Yemeni airport. Throughout his 13 months in a secret prison, he has not been allowed contact with a lawyer, and has spoken to his family only once. Ethiopian state television has aired several videos of him in which he appears gaunt and disoriented, sparking fears that he is being tortured.

Mr Tsege has previously traveled to Washington DC to speak about human rights concerns in Ethiopia, telling a Congressional committee in 2006 that “the scale of repression [by the current government] has exceeded Ethiopia’s darkest hours during the military dictatorship.” His current ordeal appears to be part of a wider crackdown on dissent by Ethiopia’s authorities in the run-up to the recent elections, which the ruling party won by an overwhelming majority. Despite this, Mr Obama today said that in his view, the controversial vote had been democratic.

Human rights organization Reprieve has written to President Obama asking him to press Ethiopia for the release of Mr Tsege and other political prisoners.

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

“It’s encouraging to hear President Obama telling Ethiopia to ‘open up space’ for opposition voices. But his praise for Ethiopia’s elections as ‘democratic’ was woefully misplaced, at a time when the government is systematically detaining and torturing leading activists such as Andy Tsege – a father of three who faces a death sentence for the mere ‘crime’ of holding democratic beliefs. If the President is serious about promoting freedom and good governance in Ethiopia, he must tell the government to release its peaceful critics, like Andy, without delay.”

ENDS

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 Reprieve’s letter to President Obama, the UN experts’ opinion on Mr Tsege’s case, and 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.