Six months after her partner Andargachew Tsege was abducted at an airport in Yemen in June 2014, Yemi Hailemariam says she remembers her phone ringing.
It was around 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in December 2014, six month she had last heard from her partner. “He’s on the phone and I’m like, ‘Where are you?’ He says, ‘I’m still there,’” Hailemariam, 48, tells Newsweek . “You can imagine how stressful it was.”
The “there” that Tsege was referring to was a secret location in Ethiopia, the country where he was born, where security forces had taken him after Yemeni officials detained him at the international airport in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on June 23, 2014. A British citizen and an active voice in Ethiopia’s political opposition in exile, Tsege, now 62, remains in a notorious Ethiopian prison, facing a death sentence. An Ethiopian court tried and convicted Tsege, along with several other political accomplices, of plotting a coup against the country’s government in 2009, and sentenced him to death.
That Sunday morning, Hailemariam was given no explanation as to why Tsege was finally allowed to call her after so many months. After passing the phone to her three children, who had tearful conversations with Tsege, Hailemariam—aware that her partner was probably under observation as he spoke—cautiously told him that the family had not given up on getting him back. “I said, ‘We are working so very hard to get you home.’” But her longtime partner simply replied by telling her not to let their children get their hopes up, in case the worst happened.
But after almost three years away, Hailemariam is hopeful that her partner may return home soon. Earlier in February, three top British legal officials penned a letter to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, urging him to push for Tsege’s release from detention, which they say is “in violation of international law.” This development, along with what Hailemariam believes is the Ethiopian government’s fatigue at holding him—the country is dealing with other problems, including a wave of anti-government protests since November 2015, while Tsege’s ongoing detention is likely straining ties with the U.K., a major donor to Ethiopia—has renewed the family’s hope of getting Tsege back. “[But] I don’t know if I’m being too much of an optimist,” she says.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1955, Tsege left Ethiopia in the late 1970s: The country’s military government, known as the Derg, had initiated a mass crackdown on political opposition, killing hundreds of thousands of opponents—including Tsege’s younger brother—in a brutal repression known as the Red Terror. He sought asylum in the U.K., but returned briefly to Ethiopia following the 1991 revolution, in which the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the Derg. Tsege hoped the new government would establish a democratic state in Ethiopia, but he was quickly disillusioned at the ethnocentric policies of the EPRDF, an ostensibly multi-ethnic coalition but which was dominated by, and consequently favored, the Tigrayan ethnic minority. He returned to London within two years, where he became an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian government: Tsege spoke before the U.S. Congress in 2006 and the European Union’s Committee in the same year on Human Rights on Ethiopia’s poor human rights record, according to Reprieve, a U.K. charity campaigning for his release. In the early 2000s, Tsege also met Hailemariam, who had grown up in Ethiopia and the United States; the couple have been together for around 15 years and have 10-year-old twins, Yilak and Menabe. Hailemariam also says that Tsege has been like a father to her elder daughter, Helawit, 17.
He visited Ethiopia again in 2005 to campaign for an opposition coalition in the 2005 elections, and was arrested—and allegedly tortured—in the aftermath. But, back in London, he co-founded the opposition movement Ginbot 7 in 2008. The movement says its mission is to bring about a democratic political system in Ethiopia. Ethiopian authorities, however, say Ginbot 7 is planning an armed struggle to overthrow the government and declared it a terrorist group in 2011. No other states or international organizations have defined Ginbot 7 as a terrorist group.
Political opposition is not exactly welcomed in Ethiopia. In the 2015 elections, the EPRDF won every single seat in the country’s parliament. Over the past 18 months, security forces have fatally clashed with protesters from the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups. The demonstrations began in November 2015 against plans to expand Addis Ababa, potentially forcing Oromo farmers to be evicted from the fringes of the capital, but have morphed into anti-government protests against the alleged marginalization of the two ethnic groups. After months of refusing to give a definitive death toll, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said in October 2016 that more than 500 people have been killed in the protests, though opposition activists say the number could be higher. In a climate where repression is rife, the most effective political opposition often comes from those in exile. “They have absolute control in Ethiopia, absolute,” says Hailemariam. “The one thing they don’t have any control over is the diaspora.”
Many of Ethiopia’s opposition movements are based in neighboring Eritrea, which is where Tsege was heading in June 2014 for a meeting with opposition figures when Yemeni officials stopped him at Sanaa airport. Hailemariam says that, when Ethiopian security forces arrived, they hooded Tsege “Guantanamo-style” and took him to Ethiopia, where Tsege spent more than a year in solitary confinement before being moved to Kality Prison, dubbed a gulag by Amnesty International for its dire conditions.
Ethiopian state television subsequently broadcast several heavily-edited videos of Tsege, one in July 2014 and one in early 2015, in which Tsege denied that he was being tortured. In the 2014 video, Tsege appears disorientated and undernourished in the video, and screaming is heard in the background.
The U.K. has only been able to provide limited assistance to Tsege during his detention. When British officials are allowed to meet Tsege, Ethiopian authorities will not allow them to ask much more than the state of his health, and Tsege told the British ambassador to Ethiopia in a November 2015 meeting that “nobody talks to you or answers the questions you raise,” according to a readout of the meeting shown to Newsweek by Reprieve.
The conditions of Tsege’s rendition are among the things disputed by three senior legal officials in the U.K. In a letter seen by Newsweek , the trio—Dominic Grieve, the ex-Attorney General for England and Wales; Charlie Falconer, a former U.K. justice secretary; and Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions in England and Wales for five years—said that Tsege’s rendition constituted “kidnapping” and that his solitary confinement for a year was “cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.” The three officials argued that Tsege’s abduction was unlawful; that Tsege will not be able to obtain a fair hearing in Ethiopia; and that the U.K. is hiding behind Ethiopia’s right to govern itself as an excuse not to intervene in the case. (On the last point, the trio refuted a prior claim made by former foreign secretary Philip Hammond and reiterated by Johnson in an August 2016 open letter on Tsege’s case that the U.K. doesn’t interfere in the judicial systems of other sovereign nations, citing the government’s intervention in the case of Karl Andree, who was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for drinking alcohol.)
“I think Boris Johnson’s response to this situation is bizarre and inexplicable,” Macdonald, one of the signatories, tells Newsweek. “Andy is a British citizen; the foreign secretary knows that he was illegally kidnapped by the Ethiopians; he knows that he was given no due process at all in his  trial; he knows that Andy was sentenced to death and has no right of appeal.” Macdonald refuses to speculate as to why the foreign secretary may be reluctant to engage more actively on the issue, but says that the current response is “completely inadequate.”
In an emailed statement to Newsweek, a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says that Tsege’s continued imprisonment and lack of access to a lawyer “is a serious concern.” The FCO spokesman says that the British government has “provided significant support” to Tsege and his family, and that it would continue to press the Ethiopian administration to provide Tsege with legal representation. (The FCO spokesman also says that the foreign secretary met with Hailemariam—something she confirms—on February 7 to “reaffirm our commitment to [Tsege’s] case.)
But Macdonald says that the U.K. government’s strategy of seeking legal counsel for Tsege is misguided. “It’s worthless because the man has been sentenced to death and has no right of appeal, so what’s the point in having a lawyer?” says Macdonald. “It’s an example of the British government not pulling out all the stops to help a British citizen who’s in desperate trouble abroad. That’s bad news for all of us.” Macdonald says that the British government should be interceding with Ethiopia “publicly or behind closed doors” with the goal of getting Tsege home, not simply securing him access to a local lawyer.
Tsege’s future plight remains unknown to his family. It appears unlikely that his death sentence would be carried out: Ethiopia last executed a death row prisoner—an Ethiopian soldier convicted of murdering the head of the country’s intelligence agency in 2001—in 2007, and carrying out the penalty in Tsege’s case would likely damage bilateral relations with Britain, an important partner for Ethiopia: The country received £334.1 million ($416.2 million) in foreign aid from the U.K. in 2015, the highest amount of any African country. But in a 2014 interview, the Ethiopian prime minister refused to confirm whether Tsege would be executed. “They are a government that’s very arbitrary,” says Hailemariam, Tsege’s partner. “With that type of government where there’s no constraints, then as long as he’s in their hands, anything and everything is possible.”
But Hailemariam remains optimistic that the latest intervention in Tsege’s case may, finally, force the British government to demand its citizen back. And until he does return, she says the family will continue to feel his absence. “If ever there was one person who does not belong in prison, [it’s Andy],” she says.“[We miss] his presence. For the kids, it’s the time they spent with him; his love; his eternal optimism,” she says. The family has no choice but to wait and see if that optimism will be rewarded.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers