After four years on death row, Andy Tsege prepares for family Christmas at last
- Credit: Archant
An Islington man who was detained on death row in his native Ethiopia for four years is spending his first Christmas of freedom with his family since the ordeal.
Andy Tsege, 63, who lives in Holloway, was seized at an airport in Yemen in 2014 and extradited to Ethiopia, which he had fled in the ’70s after criticising the government for disregarding human rights and democracy.
The regime hit him with “concocted charges” and tried him in a court of law in his absence in 2009, where he was sentenced to death.
“It was a difficult four years,” Andy told the Gazette while on a bus in Islington. “And I’m grateful to Islingtonians, the council and my MP Jeremy Corbyn for the important role they played in securing my release.
“I’m pleased to be here with my wife and children now to enjoy Christmas and New Year.
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“It’s one of the greatest things to be with them all, especially at this time of year.
“It’s just good to be back here where I can walk down the street without feeling scared.”
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But he told this paper he’ll be spending the holidays in Ethiopia.
For his three children, Helawit, 19, and his twins Yilak and Menabe, 11, it will be their first visit to the country.
“It sounds like a strange thing to say,” he said. “But things have changed.
“I was not only released but the administration has completely changed and it’s now completely safe for us to travel there.
“There is a new prime minister now in power and all of the old guard is removed. It’s a strange feeling to walk in Ethiopia because people of the same security forces who once wanted to hurt me are now protecting me.”
Abiy Ahmed of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been praised for the speed and scope of his reforms since he became prime minister in April, following the unexpected resignation of his totalitarian predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. Andy was pardoned and back in England two months later.
Looking back on the four years he spent in captivity, Andy said: “I was abducted from another country on concocted accusations.
“The government was abusing human right, so there was an absence of freedom and huge corruption.
“I was in solitary confinement for the first year with no communication with anyone. They even refused for my father [who lives in Ethiopia] to visit me.
“For one year I was held in some kind of extra judicial house and nobody knew where it was. Most of the time they kept a bag over my head so I wouldn’t know either.”
He said Mr Corbyn also tried to visit him but was denied access.
During this time Andy’s now-wife Yemi Hailemariam, of St John Street, led the people of Islington to campaign for Andy’s release, as reported by the Gazette at the time.
There was also international outcry against former Desalegn’s mass incarceration of political prisoners.
Andy was moved to Kaliti, a federal jail in the capital Addis Ababa, for the remaining three years.
“I was in a cell with two convicted murderers who had nothing in common with me,” he said.
“I couldn’t write or read or talk to them about an issue.”
He says other inmates were allowed pen, paper and newspapers but he wasn’t.
“They denied them to me,” Andy said. “So I had no information at all about the extent of the campaign going on in the outside world.
“In this age of technology to be in prison without any form of it is as good as being put in prison for 30 years in the older age.”
But, after being starved of information and good company for so long, Andy admitted there was a stark transition between his Ethiopian cell and Holloway home.
“It’s very strange,” he said. “So much has changed during the time I was in prison.
“Now people are always looking at their mobiles and they don’t talk,” he joked.
“And everyone checks what time the bus is coming on an app. The kids are the ones teaching me all these thing about Apple this and Apple that.”
The democratic and human rights activist fled Ethiopa as a political refugee in 1979 and became a British citizen.
He has lived in Islington ever since, not withstanding his illegal imprisonment, and all his children were born in the borough.
“This is my village,” said Andy. “It’s a very large village, of course.
“Islington is one place where I can be happy.”