By Ian Birrell,
AN EXPLOSIVE row has erupted between diplomats and Ministers over their reluctance to help a British man on death row in Ethiopia.
A series of extraordinary emails, obtained by The Mail on Sunday, reveal officials’ increasing frustration at political inaction over Andargachew Tsege.
Tsege, 59, a father-of-three from London, was snatched at an airport in Yemen last June and illegally rendered to Ethiopia. There are concerns he may have been tortured.
Yet Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he could not ‘find time’ for a phone call to raise the issue and did not want to send a ‘negative’ letter.
In one email, an exasperated official asks: ‘Don’t we need to do more than give them a stern talking to?’
Tsege, who has lived in the UK since 1979, has been called Ethiopia’s Nelson Mandela. Tsege fell out with his university friend ex-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, after he exposed government corruption and helped establish a pro-democracy party.
In 2009, he was sentenced to death in his absence for allegedly plotting a coup and planning to kill Ethiopian officials – claims he denies.
He was abducted on June 23 while en route to Eritrea, emerging two weeks later in Ethiopia, where he has since been paraded on TV. It is not known where he is being held.
The diplomatic exchanges disclose how officials were dismayed when British Ministers rejected requests to raise the case with Ethiopia.
‘I feel so shocked and let down,’ said Tsege’s wife Yemi Hailemariam. ‘I thought Britain was a nation driven by fairness but it seems my husband’s life is simply not valued.’
The series of emails begins on July 1, with Foreign Office officials confirming his capture: ‘His detention in Yemen is significant news, and could get complicated for the UK.’
Diplomats noted that neither Yemen nor Ethiopia informed Britain about the rendition of its citizen. ‘It feels a bit like I’m throwing the kitchen sink at the Yemenis but I want them to think twice before they do this again,’ wrote one senior figure at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa.
He also noted that a prominent Ethiopian minister had given assurances over Tsege’s treatment –‘but I wouldn’t take them with complete confidence’.
Ethiopia has claimed Tsege tried to recruit other Britons to become involved in terrorism. But the regime has used anti-terror laws to jail journalists and silence political rivals, and UK officials had not seen credible evidence.
One diplomatic cable says: ‘All we have seen are a few pictures of him standing in an Eritrean village – hardly proof that he was engaged in terrorist training.’
Three weeks after Tsege’s kidnap, the Foreign Office’s Africa director wrote that Ministers ‘have so far shied away from talking about consequences… their tone has been relatively comfortable’.
On July 21, Hammond’s office was still reluctant to talk to his Ethiopian counterpart on the phone.
‘I don’t think we are going to be able to find time for that at the moment,’ wrote his private secretary. He also turned down sending a ‘negative’ letter, asking for it to be rewritten ‘setting out areas of co-operation. It can end with a paragraph on the Tsege case.’
Despite concerns over Ethiopia’s human rights record, the nation receives £376 million a year in UK aid. One farmer there is suing Britain, claiming the money was used to usurp him from his land.
Hammond is believed to have finally called his counterpart at the end of July, one month after the kidnap. It is understood he focused on requesting consular access rather than condemning the capture.
Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty said: ‘These shocking emails show the Foreign Secretary appears to have blocked any meaningful action that could potentially bring this British father home to his family, unharmed.’
The Foreign Office said they were ‘deeply concerned’ by Tsege’s detention and were lobbying for further consular access as well as seeking confirmation the death penalty would not be carried out.