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December 13, 2006
Ethiopian ex-dictator convicted of genocide
By Les Neuhaus
The Associated Press
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An Ethiopian dictator known as "the butcher of Addis Ababa" was convicted Tuesday of genocide in a rare case of an African strongman being held to account by his own country.
Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been living in exile in Zimbabwe since 1992, was convicted in absentia after a 12-year trial.
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 making political statements or comments to the media.
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 that targeted supposed enemies of his Soviet-backed regime.
A panel of judges, sitting before a packed courtroom, convicted him of instigating genocide, committing genocide, illegal imprisonment and abuse of power.
Mengistu ruled from 1974 to 1991 after his military junta ended Emperor Haile Selassie's reign in a bloody coup. 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.
"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."
The emperor's cousin, Mulugeta Aserate, 55, said Mengistu's men came to his family's home in June 1974 and took away his father. He 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 told The Associated Press.
When deposed in 1991 by rebels led by Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia's prime minister, Mengistu fled to Mugabe's authoritarian regime in Zimbabwe, where his army had helped train guerrillas in their struggle for independence from white rule. The asylum was brokered by the United States and Canada to end the Ethiopian civil war as quickly as possible.
Mengistu has been seen in public in Zimbabwe only twice since 1992, once in a restaurant and then browsing in a bookshop. In 1998, he told The Associated Press by telephone in a rare interview that he was a "political refugee" who spent most of his time "staying at home and reading and writing something about my country."
Mengistu was tried along with 72 of his former aides, although only 34 were 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.
Rebels who toppled Mengistu were determined to try him and started planning for trials almost as soon as they took over. But as the complex cases dragged on, public interest waned. Mengistu's trial, which began in 1994, was slowed by requests from both sides for long breaks. Hundreds of key witnesses had died, further complicating proceedings.
African dictators are often followed by other dictators who don't want to set any precedent for trying holders of high office. Others hold onto power until they die.
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.
Ethiopia's courts have convicted 1,018 people since 1994 for participating in the Red Terror, but 6,426 await trial and more than 3,000 of them, like Mengistu, live in exile.