Ethiopians unfazed by Mengistu’s guilty verdict

December 13th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

By Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times | Dec. 13, 2006 Despite the magnitude of his crimes, many people in Addis Ababa seemed unfazed by today’s guilty verdict. “We’re more concerned with the new people in jail, the political prisoners, than with these old cases,”? said Addis Adugna, an architect. Tyrant_Mengistu


An Ethiopian court convicted former dictator Haile Mengistu Mariam of genocide today, but Mr. Mengistu may never face punishment because he remains in exile in Zimbabwe.

It was a marathon case, beginning 12 years ago, and along with Mr. Mengistu more than 70 other high-ranking former officials were found guilty of genocide. The trial, held in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was one of the rare instances of an African country trying its own former leader.

Mr. Mengistu ruled Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991, which included some of the darkest days of the country’s history, when government soldiers rounded up tens of thousands of students and intellectuals and brutally killed them in a campaign called the “Red Terror.”? Human Rights Watch has labeled it “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.”?

Mr. Mengistu, 69, has been widely accused of killing many of the victims with his own hands, including Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, who was strangled in bed, probably in 1975, and buried under a toilet.

Mr. Mengistu was also, in a way, responsible for the extended famine in 1984-85 that claimed 1 million lives and reinforced the image of Ethiopia as a poor and desperate country. He first denied the famine was even happening and flew in planeloads of whiskey while his people starved.

He was ousted by a guerrilla movement in 1991 and escaped to Zimbabwe, where he lives in a fancy “” and heavily guarded “” villa. The Zimbabwean government has indicated that it has no intention of extraditing him.According to Reuters, Ethiopia’s High Court decision said that Mr. Mengistu and his top officers “have conspired to destroy a political group and kill people with impunity.”? The statement added “they set up a hit squad to decimate, torture and destroy groups opposing the Mengistu regime.”?

Mr. Mengistu is scheduled to be sentenced later this month in absentia and could face death by hanging.

Despite the magnitude of his crimes, many people in Addis Ababa seemed unfazed by today’s guilty verdict.

“We’re more concerned with the new people in jail, the political prisoners, than with these old cases,”? said Addis Adugna, an architect.

Somalia is another distraction. In the past several months, Ethiopia has stepped up its military support of the weak transitional government of Somalia, which is being threatened by Islamist forces on all sides. Islamist clerics took over Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in June and have been steadily expanding their territory, which worries Ethiopian officials.

The two neighboring nations have been rivals for years, partly because of their religious differences, with Ethiopia having a strong Christian identity and Somalia almost completely Muslim.

Today, the Islamists forces in Somalia gave Ethiopia an ultimatum: get out or die.

The Islamist defense chief, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, told reporters in Mogadishu that “starting today, if the Ethiopians don’t leave our land within seven days, we will attack them and force them to leave our country.”?

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