Opinion: Fighting for human rights outside the UK
- Credit: Archant
In the last general election, Yemi Hailemariam ran for parliament against our outgoing prime minister, Theresa May.
She ran to shine a light on the wrongful imprisonment of her partner and father of her three children, Andargachew Tsege. Speaking to the people of Maidenhead while wearing a "Free Andy Tsege" t-shirt, she had just one message, "Don't vote for me, write to Theresa May."
Andargachew Tsege also known as Andy Tsege, is a UK national from Islington, London. Believing in the need for a free and democratic Ethiopia, Tsege spoke out against the Ethiopian regime's human rights abuses in front of the EU's Committee on Human Rights and the US Congress.
Originally from Ethiopia himself, Tsege fled the country to our shores seeking safety after his younger brother was murdered by government security forces and he received threats from the regime for his beliefs. Tsege was granted political asylum in 1979 and started a family in London with Hailemariam.
On June 23, 2014, Tsege was kidnapped from an airport in Yemen on his way to Eritrea. Hailemariam knew something was wrong when Tsege's brother told her he never made it to Eritrea. After two weeks, the Ethiopian authorities admitted to the UK government that they had abducted him. Apparently, they sentenced him to death in absentia in 2009. He was then held on death row knowing that he could be executed at any moment.
The UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament both called for Tsege's release. Hailemariam met with UK Foreign Office staff including foreign secretaries Phillip Hammond and Boris Johnson requesting that they publicly call for Tsege's immediate release - they did not. Instead, they expressed "deep concern" over his case and focused on seeking assurances from the Ethiopian government that Tsege would not be executed - no such assurances were received.
Realising that she couldn't count on the UK government to protect one of its own citizens, Hailemariam started the Free Andy Tsege campaign. In addition to being a single parent to three children and working as a developer in IT to pay the bills, she now had to be a campaigner. Circumstances required Hailemariam to be strong, to be resilient, to be a hero. She engaged politicians, did interviews in the media, organised vigils and started petitions. Following their mother's lead, the children decided to put on their capes too. Sixteen-year old Helawit received a Liberty Human Rights Award for co-developing a play about her father's imprisonment. Eight-year old Menabe wrote to the Queen asking for her help and did media interviews with her twin brother, Yilak.
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All heroes need backup and in the case of this family, the public showed up to help. Speaking to me, Hailemariam said, "It was really humbling the kind of support we received. When I stood in the Maidenhead election, I was pleasantly surprised how much empathy people had and were willing to sign the petition to May. Our letter writing campaign got constituents writing from every one of the constituencies in the UK. People came to the vigils, they were there for the tasks we did and it was a pleasant surprise."
Our society operates on the fundamental belief that we take care of each other. "I would like to see consular protection be legal protection rather than discretionary which means all UK nationals will be guaranteed help from the UK government when they get into trouble abroad," said Hailemariam. "The public needs to be aware that they don't have much protection if their human rights are abused once they leave the shores of the UK," she added. We have the power to effect change by writing to our MPs urging our government to make this happen.
In April 2018, change came to Ethiopia. A new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was sworn into office and Ethiopians started to believe in a better tomorrow. Many positive human rights reforms took place, a peace agreement was signed with neighbouring Eritrea and thousands of political prisoners were released.
One year ago today (May 29), Tsege was released from prison after spending four long agonising years on death row. He returned home to the UK shortly after to the warm embrace of Hailemariam and his three children who never lost faith their family would once again be reunited.
In September 2018, Tsege and Hailemariam got married. Surrounded by his loved ones, a smile on his face and gratitude in his eyes, he said he "never knew the journey from hell to heaven was so easy!"
- Daren Nair is a campaigner for human rights and individuals at risk. Yemi Hailemariam has been campaigning with Hampstead's Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.