What’s bringing Melbourne’s Ethiopian community to the streets?

By Hector Sharp

By Hector Sharp

Last week a group of around a hundred members of Victoria’s Ethiopian community filled the footpath on Collins Street to picket the British Consulate.

Why? Because they want the British Government to use diplomatic channels to secure the freedom of Ethiopian activist Andargachew Tsige.  Tsige, a British-Ethiopian national, disappeared on 24 June at Sana’a airport in Yemen. He is a well-known pro-democracy and human rights advocate in Ethiopia.

Although no official statements have been released by the Yemeni or Ethiopian authorities about his current whereabouts, human rights activists in Yemen told Amnesty International that he was forcibly returned to Ethiopia the same day he was arrested at Sana’a airport.

In recent years, many political opponents of the Ethiopian Government have been kidnapped in neighboring countries and forcibly returned to Ethiopia. Indeed Ethiopia has recently signed extradition treaties with Kenya and Sudan. There is currently no equivalent treaty between Yemen and Ethiopia. The two countries do, however, have close political and economic ties; On May 15th of this year Yemen and Ethiopian signed a communiqué committing both sides to enhanced trade and to co-operate in a “wide range of areas”.

Tsige is Secretary-General of Ginbot 7, one of five organizations proscribed as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian parliament in 2011.  The Group describes itself as a movement for justice, freedom and democracy.  It is the largest of Ethiopia’s exiled opposition movements.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed concern for Tsige’s safety if he has been returned to Ethiopia. Tsige was prosecuted twice in absentia under anti-terrorism laws. Both times he was sentenced to death.  Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law has been criticized widely for violating human rights guaranteed under Ethiopian and international law.

Members of Tsige’s political group, Ginbot 7, are particularly concerned about the risk of torture whilst in detention.  The group has written to the Yemeni President expressing their concern. The Ethiopian Government routinely denies that torture and mistreatments occurs in detention. The authorities restrict access to its prisons for international observers yet Human Rights Watch has documented numerous accounts of detainees being tortured.

Information on Ginbot 7’s website provides the addresses of British Embassies and Consulates around the world including the Consulate in Melbourne. The group calls for Ethiopians in the diaspora to lobby the British Authorities to aid Tsige. The Foreign Office has been accused of failing to act to prevent Tsige’s extradition. It said it was urgently seeking confirmation that Tsige was in Ethiopia.

The UK and Australia opposes the death penalty as a matter of principle and the Foreign Office has issued a statement underlining its, “concerns about the death penalty that Mr Tsige could face in Ethiopia.”  Yemen’s Transfer of Mr Tsige to Ethiopia is in violation of international law. Under the Convention Against Torture, to which Yemen is a party, a state may not “expel, return or extradite a person to a state” where they face a high chance of being subjected to torture.

At the time of his abduction Tsige was travelling to Eritrea, which hosts a number of exiled Ethiopian groups. The two countries clashed in a border war in 2000.

The Ethiopian Government seized power from the communist party in 1991 and has since been supported by the British. Human rights groups have accused it of being particularly repressive of political freedom and freedom of speech.

One Ethiopian man present at the protest declined to give his name because of the divide amongst Australia’s Ethiopian community between those who support the government and those who oppose it. He claims that while there are government supporters in Melbourne, the majority calls for the freedom of Tsige. Despite living in Melbourne for over 10 years he supports the opposition movement in Ethiopia because of the corruption and brutality of the current government.

The protest aims to link up with lobby efforts across the world to pressure the British Government to uses its influence as Ethiopia’s number one aid donor in order to seek Tsige’s release. The protestors accuse the British of not giving enough attention to the collaboration of Ethiopian and Yemeni security forces, allowing them to kidnap Tsige. Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7 has said they are angry that it took the UK foreign office over a week to contact Yemeni authorities. “I have seen the British authorities fighting for their citizens wherever they are arrested…But in the case of Andargachew Tsige they did not do the same thing.” Spokesperson Ephrem Madebo said.

The Foreign Office says it is continuing to provide consular assistance to Tsige’s family. And UK officials reportedly met with the Yemeni Ambassador in London last week. Still protesters on Collins Street want more “political pressure” from the British Government aimed at securing Tsige’s freedom.

Tisge was wheeled out on Ethiopian state television on Wednesday looking tired and disheveled. Activists in Melbourne say this appearance confirms their fears for his health and safety. UK human rights advocate Graeme Preebles believes that this could be the last straw for people in Ethiopia who have endured the repressive regime since it took power. Whether this event will provide the trigger for social change that activists want is unsure. What is certain is that whilst Tsige is in the custody of the Ethiopian authorities, he remains at risk of human rights abuses.