Ethiopia’s Derg: Guilty of GENOCIDE or POLITICIDE? Eskinder Nega

December 31st, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Remarkably small and frail for his famed ferocity, imprisoned Major Melaku Tefera almost always stood in the proud poise of a solider half his age, utterly expressionless—the picture perfect stoic— as he listened attentively to multitude of witnesses’ (more…)

Remarkably small and frail for his famed ferocity, imprisoned Major Melaku Tefera almost always stood in the proud poise of a solider half his age, utterly expressionless—the picture perfect stoic— as he listened attentively to multitude of witnesses’ account of his dreaded years at the helm of Begemder and Simen, one of Ethiopia’s twelve provinces in the 70’s.

Hot-tempered and ambitious (but probably impeded by having graduated at the bottom of his class—34th out of 38, according to a recent book),Melaku was barely 25 years old when he stormed in to the near-anarchic regional capital, Gonder, as an administrator-extraordinaire allotted with unlimited power. Confronted by an urban youth that had almost rebelled against the state in its virtual entirety, and a well-armed rural based opposition, EDU, an outfit led by close relatives and senior officials of deposed Haile-Selassie, inexperienced Melaku was supremely under-qualified to be any regime’s point-man to stave off disaster in a critical province. But stave off disinter was exactly what he went on to do—surprising both his friends and critics.

The price of success, unfortunately, entailed considerable human toll(to little surprise.) But much to the horror of the public, Melaku, a native of the region, defended—even relished– the obvious excesses. As painfully narrated by scores of witnesses in court, Melaku, who run a personal, vicious death-squad, insisted that the bodies of his victims, many of them shot in the head from close range, lay in the streets—where some were eaten by stray dogs. In all, 971 persons, mostly teenagers, were executed by the orders of Melaku. Thousands more were imprisoned and sadistically tortured.

When it was time to pass judgment, three judges who presided over the hearings convicted him unanimously of “inhuman and extra-judicial killings,” torture, and “barbaric cruelty.” They also found him guilty of one more crime: genocide. The penalty: death, which is still pending.

But have Melaku and the Derg regime as a whole really committed genocide as their convictions assert? A year after the assumption of state power by the EPRDF, in August 1992, a Special Prosecutors Office (SPO), the first of its kind in Africa, was established and mandated with prosecutorial powers over human rights abuses committed during the 17 years reign of the Derg. And with the stated intention to prosecute the entire leadership of the regime for human rights abuses before a national court, a precedent—to much acclaim— was set in Africa.

But “the precedent” was to be plagued by controversy and doubt from the very beginning. For starters, Ethiopia was a nation chronically deficient in prosecutors who specialized in criminal law. Worse, the few that existed fell far short of international standards. The same held true for potential defense lawyers—particularly those related to human rights issues. And to cap it all, potential judges were no more prepared and adequate for the task that lay ahead. In other words, the broad network of human resources that the mission required could hardly be met by one of the least developed nations in the world. There was no way that international standards could be met. This being a foregone conclusion, the credibility of the outcome—save those related to the obvious excesses— was marred from the very beginning.

Little surprise then, when it went on to take two years, between August 1992 and October 1994, for the SPO to file its first charges. And before it was ready to close shop, having prosecuted its last case in 2006, 12 years and 2 months were to elapse—a world record. This was the longest trial in human history— a record that will certainly never be surpassed. In this delay of justice—to which ill-prepared prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers have each amply contributed their share—lies one of the most serious shortcomings( justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes) of the “the precedent.”

Tragically, aside from the extreme delay, there was to be an even more serious controversy. The SPO, no doubt prodded by the EPRDF, was not content to charge the fallen regime merely with the uncontroversial counts of “crimes against humanity” and “aggravated murder” ( which would have sufficed for convictions and the maximum penalty), but charged them, controversially, with additional counts of genocide.

Genocide is one of the worlds most recognized and widely understood words—cutting across civilizations, languages and cultures. While the legal and scholastic definition is still a work in progress, the layman’s conception of genocide is astoundingly astute: wholesale murder of a people due to their ethnic or racial identities. This is surprisingly close to the most widely known explanation of genocide, as articulated by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG): any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part,

1–a national,
2–ethnic,
3–racial
4–or religious group,

as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

However, like all things UN, this definition was an outcome of a compromise between Stalin led Soviet Union and the West in 1948, when the UN was established. While the West pushed for the inclusion of political groups in the genocide clause, the Soviets, with the legacy of the Red Terror in their immediate past, resisted, and finally had their way when it was excluded. To many, the UN convention has been lacking ever since. And many countries, including Ethiopia, went on to incorporate political groups in their national genocide laws.

But what is the standard for genocide when the political group “is destroyed (only) in part,” as was the case for the EPRP in Ethiopia?

The international precedent, as set in the Yugoslavia trials, stresses that “the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the (number of the) group as a whole.” A substantial portion of the group must physically perish to meet the strict criteria of genocide. (Some advocate broader criteria.) And gauged from this strict standard, no political group in Ethiopia, even the EPRP, the Derg’s worst victim, has lost a substantial portion (say,1/4th ) of its membership to extra-judicial executions. In fact, the vast majority of the imprisoned were not executed. The case of the head of SPO itself, Girma wakjera, once a member of the EPRP, who was imprisoned( and tortured) but later released, illustrates the absence of intent to destroy all or a substantial portion of the oppositions’ members. Ironically, some of the judges who presided over the trials had similar stories to that of Girma Wakjera, but still went on to convict them of genocide.

So, if genocide is to be ruled out, how then are we to describe the thousands of extra-judicial killings of the Derg?

Barbara Harff and Ted Gurr, two prominent genocide scholars, have coined the term “politicide” to describe the wide-spread extra-judicial killings “when the victims are defined primarily in their hierarchical position (in an organization) or political opposition to a regime.” And which is exactly what best broadly describes the Derg’s victims- particularly during the Red terror, for which its officials have been mostly convicted of genocide and sentenced to death.

Derg officials have been sentenced to death for the wrong reasons. Whatever the courts have said, they are not guilty of genocide. And as we consider their plea for forgiveness as a nation, we must unavoidably take this overriding issue in to consideration.

Last part of this article: next week.

The writer could be reached at: serk27@gmail.com

  1. Anonymous
    | #1

    Good analysis, as usual.

    Thanks Eskinder.

    By the way, if Derg’s action against EPRP was presented as genocide, what do we make of the TPLF mass murder of EPRP members in Asimba?

  2. Mola
    | #2

    You can play with word as you wish, but the bottom line is they are criminals and proved in the court of law. Now playing with words and trying to make a meal out of it is one thing and discussing the current issue (forgiving them) is the real issue we should be discussion about.

    They are criminals who committed killings in unprecedented level in Ethiopia and forgiving them should be let for those families who have lost their loved once. Now it is easier to for me and you to just sit here and play with words to make a political meal out of it, but what about those who lost their loved once in a barbaric way? What about those who had to live with regrets and sorrow, even worse seeing the same people who condemned them to such harsh life on the streets walking freely in a short period of time (If it went their wish)?

    You have not really provided with any alternative as to what should have been done to the lack of prosecutors and defence lawyers. You just criticise without giving any solutions. If you believe there wasn’t any manpower to handle the case, then the government did what it thinks is necessary, so what is your take on what should have been done? Should the criminals been left alone while the government graduates and trained competent prosecutors and defence lawyers? It is easy to criticise but hard to come forward with strong alternatives.

  3. Anonymous
    | #3

    Tt seems that Nega is trying to make new law and apply retrospectively. I bet he should leave it to the expert the legal aspect of it. However, I strongly agree with the point he made in relation to the delay. A period of 12 years to conduct a trial is beyond believe.

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    It seems that Nega is trying to make new law and apply retrospectively. I bet he should leave it to the expert the legal aspect of it. However, I strongly agree with the point he made in relation to the delay. A period of 12 years to conduct a trial is beyond believe.

  5. elias
    | #5

    just forgive them if you do not know about forgiveness you lost.and let us not kill any more

  6. Lucy in America
    | #6

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  7. aha!
    | #7

    Eskinder Nega was right in revisiting the conviction based on genocide and supporting his his argument with authorities in the subject and the lack of fair judicial process. For sure dergue was heavy handed in extra judicial killings, summary executions, and direct actions by Mengistu himself, with no evidence for ethnic cleaning/genocide to nullify its adversaries be it EPRP or those that failed to carry orders or attempted a coudetat, I presume, while engaged in in armed struggle with TPLF and EPLF liberation movements and their etourage of other liberation movements, under the banner of oppression of nations and nationalities underpinned in a socialistic revolution, which now formed TPLF/eprdf, with the exception of EPLF which was granted to cesede from Ethiopia and granted independence. Despite of its heavy handedness and human right violations, which in par with the current regime, except that it was not tactfull enough like the current regime of rounding up and nominally bring them to justice or put them in concentration camps. Reflectivly, Dergue was engaged in imlementing the socialistic revolution in terms of class struggle, I suppose, and against EPRP for civilian rule inplace of Military Dictatorship, and engaed in armed struggle with EPLF and TPLF to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. In retrospect, if Dergue and EPRP factions accepted the path to constitutional monarch with a parliament leading to a democratically elected government the influence by TPLF and its cohorts and its subsequent ethnic and secessionist politics and policies would have been averted.

    As far as justice in terms of human rights violations, there has been no jurisdiction capable of making that judgement until a truly democratic government with independent branches of government are in place. For that happen individual need to be empowered with economic, political freedom and liberty with personal responsibility tacked to it. That has not happened in the last 19 years, let alone human right violation, genocide and war crimes.

  8. Kebedom
    | #8

    Eskender plays with words rather than reality and facts, shameless!

  9. Lucy in America
    | #9

    The derg officals are responsible for their crimes . No matter who killed 100 of thousands of ethiopians, as a head of the nation, they have responsibility to stop the killing. But THE TEGERES’ THUGS who have committed genocide aganist humanity have no legal right to charge them let alone accuse them by genocide. The derg officals are not genociders becuase they did not target a specifice ethnice group . They killed all ethiopians who were against them or who were not support them. TPLF has committed a genocide aganist humanity. TPLF killed 450 innocent annuke ethiopians , in ogaden, afar, gonder and other party of ethiopia.TPLF has been killing a specifice ethnice group. TPLF sold the food aid in 1984 hidde the money in foreign banks and caused for the death of 1m ethiopians in tegeray. That is what we call it genocide aganist humanity.The narrow minded and selfish weyanes could not be judge

  10. The Eritrean one!
    | #10

    All I can say about this drama again would be: what are the thugs weyanes up again? Are they going to commit murders as the x-derg so called criminals are been hauled in the so called weyanes dubious courts? In the end, didn’t the weyanes commit more crimes in their first 5 years against Ethiopians and now Somalians than the derg of 17 years in power!!

  11. Avon
    | #11

    Eskinder,
    Thank you for your thoughtful presentation. It always pays dividends to put emotions aside and find the devil in the details.

    It is a fact that Tigray People’s Liberation Front (aka EPRDF) is guilty of GENOCIDE as documented numerous times. As an ethnically based organization, this was the case both before they seized power, and afterward as well. Aside from the comedy of TPLF trying Derg officials, this little venture of convicting the officials with “genocide” is a way of trying to paint a better picture of themselves, or at least to convince us that they are no worse than the Derg. This is a bit embarrassing.
    Ironically, this is an indication of a rejection by Ethiopians of the idea that Derg was an ethnic based junta, as TPLFites continue to assert.
    Thank you.

  12. Henok
    | #12

    Don’t try to put excuses for ones crimes. A criminal is a criminal. Trying to compare with the current governement at any cost will not likely lessen their deed and its outcome–they killed in thousands for many years without mercy. As for this governement- if for sure they are like the deargue- they will definately visit court when the time comes- if not today not tomorrow, one day will come for sure. Has any one expected or imagined this day will come and see mengistu’s comrades go through face judgement day? I don’t think so !

    Adios Friends Melkam Gena & 2011

  13. Truth
    | #13

    Again, Weyanes are in charge of choosing what topics should we discuss.

    Dergists are not our priority at present. I don’t know why we follow Weyanes propaganda lead and so much time on this TPLF chosen topic. Our priority should be focusing on those who are suffering in TPLF hands and expose its crimes day in and out.

  14. belay
    | #14

    those derg members should serve life in prison and those ruthless like melaku should deserve death not forgivness. do you know how many mothers goes mentally ill? i still live in a shadow of derg teror. whether u call it genocide or killing it is still a murder. those dergs should get a life time suffering. do not split words.

  15. Drama
    | #15

    THIS IS EPRDF POLITICS. ESDKINDER AS USUAL PROPAGATING WHAT INTERESTS EPRDF, THE FERENJ, AND INTEREST GROUPS. THEY BELIEVE OUR MINDS WOULD BE POLLUTED WITH THEIR IDEOLOGIES OF:
    1–a national,
    2–ethnic,
    3–racial
    4–or religious group, ESKINDER’S WORDS,
    WHO EVER HAVE THOUGHT DERG WAS A GENOCIDER? WE ALL KNOW DERG IS NOT, BUT THE ASSOCIATION IS COMMUNISTIC AND UNDEMOCRATIC. AS A MATTER OF FACT, COMMUNISTS, IN THIS CASE DERG, MADE THE ABOVE 4 ELEMENTS ALMOST VANISH FROM ETHIOPIAN POLITICS. SO WHY DO WE EVEN MENTION THE WORD GENOCIDE AND ETHNIC THIS AND THAT? THIS ARTICLE, JUST LIKE ANY OTHER BACKWARD POLITICS, IS HERE TRYING TO BRAINWASH OUR PEOPLE WITH WHAT NEVER EXISTED. IT IS A PROPGANDA ARTICLE OF EPRDF FAKE REALITIES. WAISTE YOU TIME TRYING THIS FOOLISH IDEA EXTREMIZING AND BRAINWASHING THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE. GOOD LUCK IF IT WORKS FOR YOU. YOU WILL BE OLD AND REGERGITATED, AND YOU WILL STILL SEE ETHIOPIANS LOVING EACH OTHER REGARDLESS OF EACH OTHERS BACKGROUND FOOL.
    ESKINDER, PLEASE GET OUT OF YOUR BRAINWASHED PSYCHOTIC WORLD AND START WRITING SOMETHING THAT INTERESTS THE MASSES OF ETHIOPIA, SUCH AS LAND PRIVATIZATION AND GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES TO LAND OWNERS. 85% OF OUR PEOPLE ARE AGRARIANS. TELL US SOMETHING THAT WILL BRING US CASH (LEGAL AND LEGITIMATE MONEY) INTO OUR FAMILIES. ESKINDER, YOU GOT GUTS? I CHALLENGE YOU TO BRING THESE NON-WOYANE POLITICS TO THE DIASPORA.

  16. Time will tell
    | #16

    Mola
    Well it is understandable, who ever win the war will make the other side be labeled as a murderer, and designate all acts as genocide or atrocity, crime against humanity. Any side that lost the war anywhere on the face of the earth has experienced this.
    TPLF, EPLF have committed more atrocities, crime against nature, and treason than any one that I know.
    We never had a leader that insist in making the nation land locked just to make sure that his buddy will have a strip of land that he will call his country and be a president. Insist that a state property be kept as war booty to enrich a ruling party, or keep a separate book of state wealth to make sure that the beneficiary would be a certain sect of a minority group.
    If the world come back to its senses and realize that robbers and mercenaries are holding the Ethiopian people hostage and do all what is possible to liberate them as the support from certain advanced nations by providing weapons, intelligence has tipped the balance and made it impossible for people to topple these tugs. Then we will see who would be the bad guy with all the teaming that goes with it.

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