Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Former Ethiopian dictator is convicted

By LES NEUHAUS, Associated Press Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was convicted Tuesday of genocide and other charges in a rare case of an African strongman being held to account by his own country.
Mengistu, who lives in exile in Zimbabwe, was tried in absentia. He could face the death penalty at his Dec. 28 sentencing, but Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said he won't deport Mengistu if he refrains from political activity.
The trial focused on Mengistu's alleged involvement in the killing of nearly 2,000 people during a 1977-78 campaign known as the Red Terror. A panel of judges, sitting in a packed courtroom, convicted the former dictator of instigating genocide, committing genocide, illegal imprisonment and abuse of power.
Mengistu had taken power in 1974, when his military junta ended Emperor Haile Selassie's rule in a bloody coup.
Mengistu was tried along with 72 of his former aides, although there were only 34 people in court Tuesday. Fourteen died during trial and 25 were tried in absentia. All but one man were convicted of at least one charge Tuesday.
Most of those in the courtroom were family members of the defendants, and looked sullen after the verdict.
"I am very happy he has been found guilty," said Tadesse Mamo, 32, a businessman in the capital. "He killed so many of our intellectuals and our youth, most notably our emperor."
Selassie's cousin, Mulugeta Aserate, said Mengistu's men came to his family's home in June 1974 and took his father away. He was a young boy at the time, and never saw his father again.
"They told us that they were taking him to an interview, but I found out later he was summarily executed with 60 others," Mulugeta, 55, told The Associated Press.
Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu's Marxist regime, though no one knows for sure how many suspected opponents were killed in the Red Terror.
The case has been closely watched in Africa, where dictators have been known to harbor colleagues from other countries and to stymie attempts elsewhere to bring despots to justice.
It was seen as a watershed when, in March, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was brought before a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone on charges of backing Sierra Leonean rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off body parts during the 1991-2002 civil war.
The rebels who toppled Mengistu, however, were determined to pursue him in the courts, and began planning for trials almost immediately upon taking over in 1991, producing 8,000 pages of evidence.
When he was deposed in 1991 by rebels led by Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia's prime minister, Mengistu fled to the protection of Mugabe's authoritarian regime in Zimbabwe, where his army had helped train guerrillas in their struggle for independence from white rule.
The trial, which began in 1994, has been complicated by requests from both sides for long breaks. Hundreds of key witnesses have also died, making it difficult for prosecutors and defense lawyers to present their cases.
Ethiopia's courts have convicted more than 1,000 people since 1994 for participating in the Red Terror, but thousands more live in exile.


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