By Tsegaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Mengistu Haile Mariam, accused of a
17-year reign of terror in Ethiopia, faces a long-awaited
genocide verdict on Tuesday in a sign of Africa’s new resolve
to bring ex-leaders to account for past abuses.
The former Marxist ruler, now nearing 70 and living in
comfortable exile in Zimbabwe, is accused of killing tens of
thousands of people after toppling Emperor Haile Selassie in
In the most notorious purge, the Red Terror, thousands of
suspected opponents were rounded up, executed by garrotting or
shooting, then tossed into the streets.
Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 but has been the subject
of a 12-year trial in absentia in Addis Ababa.
The prosecution blames the lengthy case on the complexity
of the proceedings but Ethiopians hoping to close the door on a
painful era indicated they weren’t troubled by the delay.
“I know that even if Mengistu and all his supporters are
sentenced to death, there is no way I will get my son back,”
said Abebe Girma, 60, a pensioner whose son was accused of
being an opposition supporter and executed in the 1977-78 Red
“Just the same, I want justice to be done.”
Most of Africa’s many former strongman rulers in the
decades since independence have avoided facing legal charges.
But activists believe the continent is finally strengthening
its resolve to tackle a litany of past abuses.
Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor became the
first African leader last month to stand before an
international court in Sierra Leone, where he awaits trial on
11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And in June, an African Union summit is to decide whether
to extradite former Chad President Hissene Habre to Belgium to
face charges of mass murder and torture during his 1982-1990
The International Criminal Court is also probing war crimes
in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Things have changed hugely since the bipolar (Cold War)
world when the only people who could deliver any justice were
the people there,” said Richard Dowden, head of the UK-based
Royal African Society, referring to Africa’s coup-laden past.
WHISKY DURING FAMINE
Some 40 members of Mengistu’s “Dergue” junta — ousted in
1991 by guerrilla forces led by now Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
— have also been tried and will appear at the Supreme Court.
Twenty more, like him, are being tried in absentia.
They could face the death penalty if found guilty of crimes
against humanity and genocide, which Ethiopian law defines as
intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups.
Evidence against Mengistu has included signed execution
orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimonies.
Despite calls for his extradition, Zimbabwe’s President
Robert Mugabe is unlikely to hand over Mengistu in the event of
a guilty verdict. Rights campaigners hope, however, that a
post-Mugabe government may take that step.
“I simply cannot believe a new government in Zimbabwe would
want to protect him and I can’t think of anyone else who would
take him,” Dowden said.
Mengistu, whose army helped train Mugabe’s guerrillas in
their 1970’s struggle for independence from white rule, lives a
lavish but reclusive life in Zimbabwe.
Officially, Mengistu and his family live in a government
villa in a wealthy district of Harare, behind a high security
wall and guarded round the clock.
But diplomats believe he moves around a number of “safe”
houses and owns some properties including farms.
Many Ethiopians want him back now.
“If Mengistu is found guilty, there’s no reason for
Zimbabwe to give sanctuary to a murderer. Mengistu must be
returned home and face the verdict,” said engineer Shimles
Emperor Selassie, dethroned in 1974, was his most prominent
victim. He was allegedly strangled in bed a year after the
revolution that ended centuries of feudal rule.
Selassie was secretly buried under a latrine in the palace.
About 70 of his senior officials were shot by firing squads and
dumped in a mass grave.
When famine struck in 1984, aid workers recalled how
Mengistu flew in planeloads of whisky to celebrate the
revolution anniversary while denying there was starvation.
Up to 1 million people died from hunger in the famine that
provoked “Live Aid,” the world’s most famous aid mobilisation.
“It is hoped the verdict will show the world Mengistu’s and
his regime’s brutality, and will bring peace of mind to all
those who lost loved ones in his hands,” said an Ethiopian
lawyer, who asked not to be named.
Although proceedings against Mengistu and his henchmen
began in 1992, the trial formally started in 1994.
The co-accused include former prime minister Fikre Selassie
Wogderesse, former vice-president Fissiha Desta and others who
have been in prison awaiting verdict since 1992.