Ethiopia has sentenced to death in absentia former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The country’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction of Mengistu and 11 of his aides on 211 counts of genocide, homicide, illegal imprisonment and illegal property seizure. The 71 year old Mengistu ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991 and now lives in exile as a guest of fellow dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mengistu’s regime was marked by one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.
His twelve-year trial came to a head in January 2007 when he received a life sentence for the torture and killing of thousands during his 17 year reign. Witnesses told the court that family members who went to collect the bodies of their loved ones were asked to pay for the bullets that killed them, and evidence included torture videos. The prosecution appealed the sentence saying it was not commensurate with the crimes he committed. Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed saying “Crimes committed by Mengistu and his co-defendants by killing an emperor and burying him under a toilet is unheard of in the annals of human history”.
Tens of thousands of people died during a period of Mengistu's 17-year rule known as the Red Terror. Mengistu grew up under the shadow of Ethiopia’s long-term emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie was enormously respected internationally and was instrumental in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. But at home, his regime was under increasing pressure. In 1972, a famine in the north-eastern region of Wollo killed 80,000 people and the oil crisis of the following year also hit Ethiopia hard. Together with a series of military mutinies, these events were instrumental in destabilising Selassie’s regime.
In 1974, a growing opposition movement coalesced into a 120 member military group called the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that soon came to be called the Derg (Amharic for "committee" or "council"). The Derg elected Major Mengistu Haile Mariam chairman and immediately wrung concessions from the emperor which saw an effective transfer of power. In September the Derg formally deposed Selassie and secretly killed him and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in the months that followed. The Derg named itself as the country’s ruling body under the chairmanship of an outsider, Lieutenant General Aman Mikael Andom.
Andom didn’t last long and neither did any of his immediate successors. After three years of violent internal power struggles, Mengistu declared himself Derg leader in February 1977. He set about consolidating his power and eliminated all of his remaining rivals in a campaign that became known as the “Red Terror”. Thousands died in the streets of the capital and other cities in the following two years. Under his leadership, the Derg promoted the “Ye-Itiopia Hibretesebawinet” (Ethiopian Socialism). The concept was embodied in slogans such as "self-reliance," "the dignity of labour," and "the supremacy of the common good."
Mengistu flourished in the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War. Under his leadership Ethiopia became the main African client of the Soviet bloc, and received massive shipments of arms to fight insurgent movements in the Ogaden and Eritrea. Another half a million civilians died in the aftermath of the 1984 famine (which inspired Band Aid). Mengistu initially tried to hide the extent of the famine from the world and then used the disaster as a pretext to forcibly relocate hundreds of thousands of villagers from rebel-held northern Ethiopia to areas in the south.
Mengistu’s regime quickly unravelled after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Eritrean opposition led a coalition of regional and ethnic rebel groups known as the Ethiopian people's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which overwhelmed the Derg and took the capital Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled to Harare where he was warmly welcomed by Mugabe. In 1992 the new government established a Special Prosecutor's Office (SPO) to investigate the widespread crimes committed during the Derg period. In 1997 the SPO charged five thousand people with genocide and war crimes, of whom over half, including Mengistu, were charged in absentia. Two years later, Human Rights Watch unsuccessfully called for his arrest when he travelled to South Africa for medical treatment.
Mengistu is unlikely to come to justice unless Mugabe loses next month’s run-off election. Zimbabwe has consistently refused to extradite Mengistu since he fled there in 1991. And after the Ethiopian court handed down its original life term last year, Mugabe reiterated his position, saying, "Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest". Mugabe has found a useful role for his “special guest” making him a consultant to his secret police the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation). As a Zimbabwean opposition group put it, “No doubt the former dictator found the income useful and the CIO could benefit from his wide experience in suppressing dissent.”