Zimbabwe’s MDC plan to extradite Mengistu Haile Mariam to Ethiopia – Martin Fletcher in Harare ( Timesonline)

February 5th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

For 17 years Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator who slaughtered opponents on an industrial scale in the “Red Terror”, has lived in Zimbabwe as the honoured guest of Robert Mugabe, dividing his time between a heavily guarded villa in Harare, a farm near the capital and a retreat on glorious Lake Kariba.

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For 17 years Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator who slaughtered opponents on an industrial scale in the “Red Terror”, has lived in Zimbabwe as the honoured guest of Robert Mugabe, dividing his time between a heavily guarded villa in Harare, a farm near the capital and a retreat on glorious Lake Kariba.

Last year an Ethiopian court sentenced the “Butcher of Addis” to death after convicting him of genocide in absentia but Mr Mugabe flatly refused to extradite the man who helped to arm Zanu (PF)’s guerrillas during Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation war.

Suddenly, however, the future of one of Africa’s worst tyrants looks less assured. Next week the Zimbabwe opposition Movement for Democratic Change will enter a unity government with Zanu (PF) and Nelson Chamisa, its chief spokesman, told The Times yesterday that Mengistu’s extradition to Ethiopia would be “high on the agenda” of that new administration.

“Zimbabwe should not be a safe haven or resting place for serial human rights violators like Mr Mengistu,” he said. “We can’t shelter purveyors of injustice.”

Few Zimbabweans would shed tears if Mengistu, 71, is sent home to the gallows. Mr Mugabe has spent millions of dollars providing him with a villa in a barricaded cul-de-sac in the Gun Hill suburb, with round-the-clock protection and any number of other benefits including the payment of substantial telephone bills, including one of $15,000.

In return Mengistu has advised Mr Mugabe on security issues, and was allegedly the mastermind of Operation Murambatsvina in 2006 in which security forces and Zanu (PF) thugs razed the homes of 700,000 slum-dwellers regarded as MDC supporters.

Mengistu has plenty of experience in that field. He seized power after a military coup in 1974 that ended Emperor Haile Selassie’s 44-year rule and ushered in one of the bloodiest regimes Africa has known.

In 1976 he mounted the “Red Terror” campaign against opponents of his Derg regime by standing in the centre of Addis Ababa, shouting: “Death to the counter-revolutionaries”, and smashing bottles filled with pigs’ blood to demonstrate the fate that awaited them.

Over the next few years more than half a million people were thought to have been killed in what Human Rights Watch called “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder ever witnessed in Africa”. Relatives had to pay a tax called “the wasted bullet” to retrieve the bodies of the dead. The victims included the former Emperor and numerous members of the Royal Family, and Mengistu is said to have executed some of them himself.

He turned Ethiopia into a Marxist state, backed by the Soviet Union, earning the sobriquet the “Black Stalin”. He created giant collective farms that had the same ruinous effect on agricultural production as Mr Mugabe’s land seizures in Zimbabwe, and that helped to cause terrible famine.

His Soviet-armed military sought to crush an independence war in Eritrea, and an uprising in Tigray province, but when the Soviet Union collapsed Mengistu lost his sponsors. In 1991 he fled to Zimbabwe as the Tigre People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front surrounded Addis. Washington asked Mr Mugabe to accept him to end the bloodshed.

In 1995 Mengistu narrowly survived an assassination attempt by two Eritreans as he took an afternoon stroll with his wife near Garvin Close, his Harare home.

Otherwise he has maintained a low profile. Early on he was occasionally spotted in a shopping centre or restaurant, surrounded by guards and armed with a pistol. In 1998 he told a reporter that he was a “political refugee” who spent his time reading, writing and watching television.

In 1999, using a Zimbabwean diplomatic passport, he flew to Johannesburg for medical treatment, and gave a rare interview to a South African newspaper in which he claimed his socialist revolution had been necessary to remove Selassie’s “backward, archaic and feudalist system”, and that millions of peasants had benefited. More recently he has vanished from sight.

Mengistu’s armed guards were nowhere to be seen in Garvin Close yesterday, and The Times was able to drive right up the cul-de-sac before soldiers appeared and ordered the intruder to leave.

As Mr Mugabe’s popularity has plunged, Mengistu was rumoured to have made contingency plans to move to North Korea. Now might be the time to dust them off — if he has not done so already.

Reign of terror

— Seized power in the aftermath of the 1974 coup against Emperor Haile Selassie, who died the following year

— Replaced the ancient feudal system with totalitarian rule from 1977, marked by “Red Terror” purges in which suspected enemies were rounded up and executed

— Tens of thousands were butchered or tortured. Thousands more civilians were caught in the crossfire of war against northern rebels and 700,000 peasants were resettled forcibly

— Up to one million Ethiopians starved to death in the 1984 famine, a direct result of his Marxist policies that left the country ravaged by economic decline

— Fled to Zimbabwe in 1991, after guerrilla forces led by Meles Zenawi toppled his regime

— Found guilty in absentia of genocide by Ethiopia’s supreme court last year and sentenced to death

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