An Ethiopian academic on a scholarship in Dunedin allegedly threatened to pour acid on his wife after their acrimonious split.

Dereje Getachew Regasa is on trial before the Dunedin District Court after pleading not guilty to assaulting a female, threatening to kill and threatening to do grievous bodily harm.

The defendant came to the University of Otago in April 2016 to prepare a thesis for his PhD in the field of economics, the court heard.

According to Google Scholar, he has since published articles: "Empirical Essays on Finance and Economic Development in Ethiopia" and "Access to Financing and Firm Growth: Evidence from Ethiopia".

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On a trip back home in 2017, Regasa reconnected with his former girlfriend Fre Hagos and the pair married in May that year.

Despite an initial setback in her bid for a visa, the defendant was eventually granted permission to join her husband in Dunedin in May 2018.

By November, Hagos told the jury, the relationship was disintegrating.

"My husband was very abusive and always controlled me and I can't leave the house, I can't make a friend," she said.

A man the couple had met through Facebook in their efforts to buy a car began to speak with Hagos online.

She said she went to meet the man in St Kilda.

"I really needed a friend, someone to talk to," she told the court.

When Regasa found out, Hagos said he became violent.

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She said he grabbed her by the throat and threw her on to the bed.

"I kill you. You cheated," Regasa allegedly said while wielding a 30cm kitchen knife.

Defence counsel Anne Stevens QC suggested there had been no violence during the dispute and that Ms Hagos was the one establishing her authority.

"I am a strong woman. I will go out when I want to," Mrs Stevens alleged she said.

The complainant denied that was the case.

She said she had been left bleeding from a scratch on her neck and was "really scared".

The pair separated but five months later, Ms Hagos said, they were speaking again over the phone.

When she confirmed there was no chance of them resuming their relationship, Regasa allegedly reacted.

"He told me he would pour acid on my head," she said.

Stevens said her client vehemently denied inflicting any violence or threats against his estranged wife.

The timeline involved in the case, she told the jury at the outset, was extremely significant.

Hagos — who gave evidence by video link from Auckland — went to police with her allegations in May this year, only days after she was contacted by Immigration New Zealand questioning her status.

Under cross-examination, the complainant confirmed she had only been allowed to remain in the country on the basis of the allegations she had made.

Did she plan to remain in New Zealand permanently? Stevens asked.

"Yes," she said.

The lawyer asked if Hagos had got the plan to apply for political asylum from a friend who also split from her husband in similar circumstances.

"No," she said.

Regasa was awarded his PhD in August and is due to return to Ethiopia in March next year.

The trial, before Judge John Macdonald and a jury of six men and six women, will hear the defendant give evidence tomorrow.