Mengistu found guilty of Ethiopian genocide

Steve Bloomfield Africa Correspondent
Wednesday 13 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Ethiopia's former dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who killed thousands of political opponents and ignored a famine which killed one million people, has been found guilty of genocide in an Ethiopian court.

The self-proclaimed Marxist was tried in his absence at the 12-year hearing, having fled to Zimbabwe after the collapse of his rule in 1991. Human rights groups said there were concerns over the fairness of the trial but said it was important that victims felt justice had been done.

Mengistu came to power in 1974 after his Derg party overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. He soon instigated a purge of political opponents known as the "Red Terror". Suspects were rounded up, some shot, others garrotted. The bodies were thrown on the streets.

The verdict comes as African leaders accused of terrorising their people have begun to find justice is catching up with them.

The former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, whose reign of terror saw him lead rebel movements in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone in the 1990s, never expected to end up in a cell in The Hague, awaiting trial.

When he left Liberia in 2003 for a life of luxury in exile in Nigeria, Taylor departed to the sound of a gospel choir singing his praises while he waved to supporters from a velvet throne. But after elections in Liberia, the new President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, called for him to be extradited and brought to the UN-backed court set up in Sierra Leone to try the country's warlords.

The former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, ddescribed as " Africa's Pinochet", is also set to be brought to trial. He will be tried in Senegal where he has been living in exile after the African Union called for his prosecution "in the name of Africa". A Belgian judge issued an international arrest warrant last year, charging the former president with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture during his rule from 1974 to 1991.

"Even in Africa, which has been the last bastion of impunity, we have seen that African leaders are stepping up to the plate," Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch, said. "It is certainly uneven, and they are being dragged along kicking and screaming, but we are definitely seeing a trend in which people who commit mass murder are being brought to account."

In Ethiopia yesterday it was more a form of "victor's justice", as Mengistu was tried by a judge appointed by the regime which ousted him. Judge Medhen Kiros told the court: "Members of the Derg who are present in court today and those who are being tried in absentia have conspired to destroy a political group and kill people with impunity."

Although the Red Terror affected thousands, it was Mengistu's dismissive response to events in 1984 which arguably caused most deaths. An estimated one million people died in a desperate famine which grabbed the world's attention. News footage, shot by the cameraman Mo Amin, spawned LiveAid and a global fundraising drive. Yet through it all, Mengistu was consumed with preparations for the 10th anniversary of the revolution. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, the member of Mengistu's central committee responsible for drought relief, claimed in his memoirs that Mengistu referred to the prospect of a serious famine as "petty human problems".

During his 17-year reign, tens of thousands of people were killed, tortured or detained and about 700,000 peasants were forcibly resettled in an effort to cut off support for rebels in the north. Those rebels, led by Meles Zenawi, took power in 1991 and Meles remains prime minister after winning a third term last year in disputed elections.

Although Mengistu is expected to be given the death penalty when sentenced on 28 December, the former dictator is likely to live the rest of his days in relative luxury in Zimbabwe.

"Mengistu is very comfortably living under the protection of Robert Mugabe," Mr Brody said. "The world is getting to be a smaller place for people who commit atrocities but there are still places they can go."

Life of a tyrant

* 1937: Born in Walayitta, Ethiopia.

* 1966: Graduates from military academy.

* 1974: Takes part in bloody coup that overthrows the government of Emperor Haile Selassie. The officers rule through a junta known as the Derg, or 'committee'.

* 1977: Mengistu takes control of the Derg following a power struggle. He shoots a fellow officer who wants to make peace with the province of Eritrea which is seeking independence. He hopes to turn Ethiopia into a Soviet-style workers' state.

* 1977-78: Mengistu is involved in the killing of nearly 2,000 people during a campaign known as the Red Terror.

* 1984: As one million people die from famine, Mengistu is preparing celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the Derg coming to power.

* 1991: Rebels led by Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia's Prime Minister, depose Mengistu. He flees to Zimbabwe, where he lives a lavish, if reclusive life, in exile.

* Yesterday: Found guilty in absentia of genocide.

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