Masters of Ethiopia's Red Terror face trial for genocide

Relatives of Mengistu's countless victims have waited five years to obtain justice, writes David Orr in Addis Ababa

David Orr
Sunday 31 March 1996 23:02

There are few physical reminders in Addis Ababa of the brutal Communist regime which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991: a bust of Marx near the university; a mural of Lenin at the Ministry of Defence; and on the main thoroughfare, the soaring Victory Monument, emblazoned with a hammer-and-sickle and crowned with a red star.

Yet, for those who suffered under the rule of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, the memories of those dark years are all too real. Kebede Ademase and his wife, Bizunesh Demisse, lost three children in the Red Terror of the Seventies, when countless thousands of "counter-revolutionaries" were imprisoned, tortured and murdered.

Their 23-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter were denounced and thrown into prison at the end of 1978. Early the following year they were executed and their bodies dumped in front of a bus garage in the middle of the night. Soon after, another son, aged 21, was detained on his way home from college. After interrogation by the authorities, he was taken to the lane leading to his parents' house and shot in the head.

"I don't know why they were killed", says Mr. Ademase, a retired hospital worker. "They said my daughter wrote a subversive document. But as far as I know they weren't involved in student politics".

After all this time, Mr Ademase and his wife might soon have the satisfaction of seeing justice done. On 4 April, the trial of the Dergue, the military junta which ruled for 17 years after its overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, is set to resume. Forty- six members of the Dergue ("committee" in the main language spoken, Amharic) will stand in the dock to answer charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

A score of others, including President Mengistu who fled as rebels approached the capital in May 1991, and now lives in Zimbabwe, will be tried in absentia. They face the death penalty if convicted. "It would be wrong to say the judiciary is totally independent", says Tsehai Wada, a lawyer with the Ethiopian Human Rights Centre.

"It's under quite a lot of pressure from the politicians to secure convictions. But there is little doubt that the 46 facing trial have been involved directly or indirectly in the atrocities committed during the Dergue regime".

The trials, which could last for years, will constitute the most extensive judgement of human rights violations since the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. If they are deemed a success by international observers, they could be used as models for similar actions in Rwanda.

"The Dergue trial is a huge and complex task", says Girma Wakjira, the state's special prosecutor. "We've got limited staff and resources and we're dealing with issues completely outside the previous experience of Ethiopia's legal system".

However, the government of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, is receiving considerable international support. Argentina has provided forensic investigators to examine mass graves, the US Bar Association has given legal advice, Sweden has donated computers, and Britain and Holland have provided financial assistance.

In addition to thousands of testimonies from survivors and victims' relatives, the special prosecutor has had access to many thousands of detailed documents, including orders for executions, torture and a litany of other crimes.

"The Red Terror was organised in a very systematic and bureaucratic manner", says Mr Wakjira.

"Records were meticulously kept and every last bullet used for executions accounted for. The evidence we present will amaze not only our own people, it will amaze the whole world".

About 1,900 people have been arraigned and it is the intention of the special prosecutor that all should stand trial. They have been divided into three different categories: the political masters and decision-makers, among them those whose cases will be heard in April; the "middle management" - some 800 policemen, soldiers and administrators who carried out the day-to-day running of the Red Terror; and, finally, the alleged perpetrators of the crimes - some 900 individuals who are said to have tortured, drowned, strangled and shot thousands of their fellow countrymen.

The most prominent defendants are held at World's End, a prison and former Dergue death centre in the capital. The prisoners, who are about to enter their fifth year of detention, wile away their days in an octagonal courtyard, reading, learning languages, playing chess and table tennis. They all proclaim their innocence.

"We want the guilty to face what they have done", says Manyahelishal Gisau, chairman of the Anti-Red Terror Committee, which was set up to catalogue the Dergue's atrocities.

"People have suffered terribly, people have been disabled by torture, parents of victims have lost their minds. Until the guilty are punished, the survivors cannot be released from their suffering".

No one knows how many people died at the hands of the Dergue. The names of some 54,000 victims have been registered with the Committee in Addis Ababa but the real tally could be several times as high.

Kebede Ademase and his wife, whose three dead children are on the Committee's files, are even more forthright: the members of the Dergue must be given the death penalty, they say. There can be no other justice for their victims.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in