Hopes raised for release of British human rights activist jailed in Ethiopia

James Rothwell
 Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister - Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Hopes have been raised that a British human rights activist jailed illegally in Ethiopia could soon be released, after the country's prime minister announced the closure of a prison where he may have been tortured and illegally detained.

Andy Tsege, 62, was abducted by Ethiopian security forces in 2014, having been tried and sentenced to death in absentia.

The Ethopian government claims he is a terrorist, while human rights campaigners say the father-of-three was illegally detained on politically motivated charges.

But in an unexpected announcement on Wednesday, HailemariamDesalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister, said he would drop charges against political prisoners and also close the notorious Maekelawi Prison.

"Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released," Hailemariam said.

"And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum."

It remains unclear whether Mr Tesge is among those due to be set free, but human rights campaigners say his release is long overdue and that he has been tortured by his captors. 

“This is a real opportunity for the Ethiopian government to recognise Andy’s desperate situation and ensure he is one of those released.

"After being kidnapped, illegally transported to Ethiopia, tortured and locked up on death row for the past three and a half years, it is long past time that Andy is returned to his partner and three children in London," said Maya Foa, director of the legal charity Reprieve, which has supported Mr Tsege's case. 

The activist was born in Ethiopia but became a British citizen after seeking political asylum in London in 1979, and he has raised a family in the UK.

Some of the prominent politicians currently in custody include opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Merara Gudina. A number of journalists also remain in detention.

"Potentially big news," Human Rights Watch researcher Felix Horne said on Twitter after the announcement, as some observers waited to see the government's next move.

The protests demanding wider freedoms began in late 2015 and led to hundreds of reported deaths and tens of thousands of arrests while disrupting one of Africa's fastest growing economies.

"The crackdown on the political opposition saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association," rights group Amnesty International has said.