By John Ryle
A reporter’s story
In late 1994—and again in 1995—I travelled to Addis Ababa to report on the trial of the Derg, the former rulers of Ethiopia. The trial was getting little coverage in the western media. This was puzzling. There were many reports on the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Yet at this point neither of those tribunals—respectively in the Hague and in Arusha—had made an indictment. In Rwanda itself courts dealing with the lesser cases arising from the Genocide had still not started proceedings. And in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had not yet held its first hearings. The trial of the Derg, on the other hand, was actually underway: the first large-scale human rights trial of recent times, and—barring the conviction of four former members of the government in Mali—the first ever in Africa.
The trial in Ethiopia was on a grand scale: the entire former leadership of the country was under indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity. There were more than forty men in the dock, with a further 29 being tried in absentia and another fifteen hundred detained, waiting to be charged. Some human rights activists were calling it an African Nuremberg.
Was the comparison accurate? Whatever was happening in Ethiopia, it seemed to me, could hardly fail to be of significance. It was both a new development in the application of international human rights law and also, potentially, a much-needed example to other countries in Africa, countries that suffer or have suffered the kind of misgovernment that the Derg visited on Ethiopia. I had a personal interest also: two people I knew had died in the Derg’s prisons. In Ethiopia, though, I found that the comparative neglect of the trials by the international media was more than matched by indifference among large sections of the Ethiopian populace and by profound disagreement among them concerning the significance of the trials.
I spent two months in Ethiopia. My qualifications for writing about the trials are limited: I don’t speak or read Amharic—the language of the court—nor any of the other languages spoken by in Ethiopia. I am not a human rights lawyer. Although I have worked as an anthropological researcher in Sudan and Somalia, two of Ethiopia’s neighbours, I have spent little time in Ethiopia itself. And highland Ethiopia is culturally quite distinct from Sudan or Somalia. It is very different from all other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In this account I will outline the events in Ethiopia that gave rise to the trials; then summarise the charges and give an account of their course to date, borrowing from the account of the first days of the trials that I wrote for the New Yorker. I will also be summarizing some of the conversations I have had with Ethiopians about the meaning of the trials. The people I spoke to included victims, witnesses, members of the legal profession, officials of the present government, members of the opposition and the accused themselves, who I interviewed in prison.
The court reconvened earlier this month after a long break—a break for the rainy season—and as I speak now they will be hearing the seventh or eighth witness in what is still only the first of many, many cases. The court meets only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So the trials are going to last a long time.
Shipwrecked by history
Unlike every other country in the continent, Ethiopia was never subjected to European colonisation, apart from a brief period of Italian occupation during the second world war. Ethiopia is itself an imperial power, one that has been shipwrecked by history. The dominant political culture in highland Ethiopia has been Christian for many centuries, more centuries than in Europe. In the course of the nineteenth century highland Ethiopians colonized large parts of the surrounding lowlands, doubling the size of the Ethiopian empire—expanding to include Somali areas in the East, and tracts of the south inhabited by a diversity of peoples including Muslims, Christians and some untouched by any of the Abrahamic religions. Ethiopia today is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious polity, held together, historically, by a feudal aristocracy and, more recently, by a revolutionary autocracy. Within this polity two ethnic, or ethnolinguistic, groups from the highlands have traditionally vied for control: the Amharas and the Tigrayans.
In 1991 the city of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was captured by a coalition of rebel armies from the northern provinces of Tigray and Eritrea, bringing to an end the seventeen-year rule of the Derg. The Derg was a military junta that in 1974 seized power from the failing administration of Emperor Haile Selassie. (The name is taken from Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia; “derg” means committee.) The hundred or so members of the Derg were mostly junior military officers, drawn from all provinces of Ethiopia; its Chairman was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Their first action was to execute by firing squad all the senior members of Selassie’s government, fifty-nine of them. The Emperor himself followed a few years later, murdered in his bed. The Patriarch of the Orthodox church, the established church of Ethiopia, was also secretly killed. And quite a few members of the Derg itself died violently, purged by Mengistu.
That was the fate of the political elite. But the majority of the Derg’s victims were not members of this elite. They were rival revolutionaries. In 1974, two years after it came to power, the new regime began an urban counter-terrorist operation called, in deliberate invocation of the French and Russian revolutions, the Red Terror.
Terror and counter-terror
Most of the victims of the Red Terror were students who supported—or were suspected of supporting—the EPRP, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, a soi-disant socialist vanguard party that had attracted many of the young intellectuals in the country. They had been leading participants in the political ferment in the late 1960s and early 1970s that led to the army takeover.
In the chaotic early days of the revolution, seeing political influence slip from their grasp as the military consolidated their hold on power, the campus utopianism of the EPRP mutated into urban terrorism. Meanwhile Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had become Soviet Russia’s chief African client, was learning how to be a Stalinist. He announced the Red Terror with a speech in the main square in the heart of Addis Ababa, Meskal Square (the Square of the Feast of the Finding of the True Cross, renamed Abiot Square—Revolution Square—by the Derg). During this speech, in a characteristically demagogic gesture, Mengistu hurled bottles of red dye to the ground to represent the blood of imperialists—the Western powers—and of counter-revolutionaries—the EPRP.
Even before the proclamation young people were being detained, tortured and killed by officials of the kebeles, the precinct organizations established by the Derg to be their eyes and ears among the people. As I wrote in my report on the trial, it was a time when inhabitants of Addis Ababa and other towns came to fear the worst: if their sons did not come home at night they might turn up dead on the street in the morning, with a sign nailed to them saying “I Was Killed Because I Betrayed the Revolution”.
Thus far it’s a story that is all too familiar to us from European history. Like others before it, the Ethiopian revolution was one that consumed its children.
By 1978 the Red Terror had more or less succeeded in suppressing dissent in the cities, but in the rural areas of the central and northern highlands, particularly Tigray and Eritrea, separatist guerilla movements—which had already begun in the time of the Emperor—continued to resist the new government. These insurgent groups fought a long civil war against the Derg all through the 1970s and 1980s. The Derg’s response was a full-scale counter-insurgency campaign: detention, torture, and the attempted destruction of the rural economy by aerial bombardment of villages on market day.
One of the defendants in the trial, Legesse Asfaw, was the mastermind of this campaign. He was notorious for his inversion of Mao-Tse-Tung’s dictum concerning the relation of a guerilla army to the rural population supporting it. Mao’s phrase was “fish swimming in a friendly sea”. Legesse Asfaw’s riposte was: “to kill the fish, you drain the water”.
During this time northern and central Ethiopia experienced one of the periodic droughts the region is vulnerable to. The result was the famine of 1984. The Derg added to its record of concern for its citizens first by denying the existence of the famine, then by blocking food distribution to areas under rebel influence—and finally by using the resulting exacerbation of hunger as a pretext for forced relocation of the inhabitants of these areas to underdeveloped areas in the South and West of the country, where many of them died of malaria. An Africa Watch report estimated that the Derg bore responsibility for half a million civilian deaths.
A long revolution
By any standards the Derg was a bad government. I think it is fair to say that the great majority of people inside and outside Ethiopia was glad when it went—even some of the members of the Derg itself. But it would be misleading to portray it simply as particularly monstrous kleptocracy: under the Derg literacy increased in Ethiopia; the country also saw the beginning of a reform of the land-holding system that had allowed serfdom to flourish in the southern provinces under the Emperor.
The period of the Derg’s rule can be seen in retrospect as the first, violent phase of a long revolution in Ethiopia, one that is still continuing, a revolution that is transforming a feudal empire (though some scholars dispute the use of the word feudal to describe the Ethiopian case) into a modern nation state of a size and shape and political complexion that is yet to be determined.
Mengistu was a Stalinist, but so were his opponents. As late as 1989 the spokesman of the TPLF, the Tigrayan Liberation Front, maintained in a BBC interview that their model for the political development of Ethiopia was neither Russia, nor China, nor Yugoslavia, not even the DDR (East Germany), but—startlingly—Albania. Yet two years later, with American support, the TPLF took over the government. The manner in which the TPLF came to power (it still forms the core of the government and its leader, Meles Zenawi, is the Prime Minister) and the way it transformed itself from a guerilla army with an outdated ideology into a reformist government that has become a favoured client of western donors and a key instrument of American interests in the horn of Africa—this transformation is a model of post-cold war insurrectionary realpolitik. (Recently a TPLF spokeman put a new spin on the Albanian analogy, explaining that what they really meant when they said that Albania was their model had simply been that Albania and Ethiopia were both very mountainous as well as economically backward.
The success of this government in the international arena and the ascendancy within it of Tigreans, one of the Highland peoples that traditionally vied for power in the Ethiopian empire, is one of the chief causes of political dispute in contemporary Ethiopia, something I will discuss more later.
When Addis Ababa fell in 1991 to a TPLF-led guerilla coalition—the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front)—most of the officials of the previous government were captured. Mengistu himself managed to flee the country with US assistance and was given asylum in Zimbabwe; a dozen others managed to escape abroad. Some are in the United States, one of them was, until recently, in Israel; four sought refuge in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa, where they still are today, except for one who committed suicide several years ago. But over forty of them, including eight of the twelve-man standing committee of the Derg, were caught and detained in Ethiopia. Some have since died in prison. Many gave themselves up voluntarily, perhaps for their own protection. The EPRDF also detained about three thousand other officials and military officers. They suspended habeas corpus for twelve months while they established a transitional government. A thousand or so detainees from that time were later released.
(The Italian government has made it clear that it is willing to hand over the Derg members who have taken refuge in the Embassy, but only on condition that they are not subject to the death penalty, thus leaving the three fugitives in the unusual position of actually hoping for a death sentence to be passed on them—life in an Ethiopian jail being less desirable than an indefinite stay in the Embassy compound.)
During the first year of the EPRDF administration there were a number of mass meetings in Addis Ababa and other cities. Here local officials who were suspected of being perpetrators of extra-judicial execution and torture were forced to appear and Anti-Red terror Committees, composed of relatives of victims, were established to assemble evidence. At these public meetings suspects were confronted by victims and relatives of victims. Sometimes the meetings were televised. But, surprisingly perhaps, these kangaroo courts did not convict or punish. There were no forced confessions and no lynchings. This spontaneous truth and reconciliation process merits further investigation.
At this time there were also a number of exhumations by local authorities at known burial sites for victims of the Red Terror, the Derg’s killing fields. These were not forensic exhumations; indeed they destroyed any forensic evidence there might have been. They were performed at the behest, again, of victims’ families who sought confirmation of the deaths of their relatives. Some of the exhumations were also televised.
The Special Prosecutor’s Office
The year after it came to power the Transitional Government—the government established by the TPLF/EPRDF—set up a Special Prosecutor’s Office, the SPO, to prepare charges against the detainees. The detainees were divided into three groups: members of the Derg itself, both military and civilian; military field commanders; and local officials. The last were usually the material offenders. The categories may be taken to correspond to different degrees of responsibility for the crimes committed under the Derg’s rule. The Ethiopian Special Prosecutor is an investigating magistrate on the continental European model. His remit includes both investigation of the crimes and also the preparation of cases against the accused, roles that would be separated in British or US practice.
The Special Prosecutor’s Office has received financial and technical assistance from western governments, from the Swedish government and the Danish government in particular. (The Danes are paying for defence lawyers.) And also from Western NGOs, notably the Carter Centre in Atlanta. Three international human rights lawyers have acted as advisors to the Special Prosecutor: one American, one French and one Argentinian. The first of these left after being accused by Ethiopian government officials of working for the CIA; the last is now working for the International Civilian Mission in Haiti.
As time passed there was growing pressure from donor governments and from western human rights organizations to bring the detainees to trial. There were several official announcements, followed by delays and postponements. Finally, at the end of 1994, three years after the EPRDF came to power, the first charges were announced against the surviving members of the Derg, seventy-three of them. Those outside Ethiopia, including Mengistu, are being tried in absentia.
All the defendants stand accused on counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and homicide; the twelve members of the standing committee are accused, in addition, of murder and actual bodily harm. More than two hundred specific offences are specified, involving the deaths of nearly two thousand named individuals. The charges are brought under the Ethiopian penal code, promulgated in the time of the Emperor, which incorporates the UN Genocide Convention, word for word. It is the first time these provisions have been invoked in Ethiopian courts.
So far these are the only charges to be brought, but just last week the Special Prosecutor sought the court’s permission to lay charges against a further 1,500 defendants. It seems, then, that the remaining two groups—the local government officials who are the actual perpetrators of most of these offences and the military field commanders—are about to be indicted.
In my article on the trials I stated—accurately I hope—that the Special Prosecutor, Girma Wakjira, has what amounts to a written confession for many of the killings. In their paranoid fervour, I reported, the Derg had expected kebele (commune) leaders to torture and kill; in their bureaucratic zeal they required them to complete, in duplicate, a questionnaire that detailed the contributions they had made to the revolution. The correct way to complete the questionnaire, for a cadre desirous of career advancement (in an application, say, for a Star of Lenin) was to list the names of suspected counter-revolutionaries whom he had eliminated. Thus many may have signed what could turn out to be their own death warrant. The documentary evidence in the possession of the Special Prosecutor’s Office is reportedly vast—over three hundred thousand documents (comparable to the twenty-two tons of Iraqi government papers captured by the Kurds and shipped to Washington in 1992).
The Special Prosecutor, who is responsible for the collection of evidence and the preparation of the charges—and who himself lived through the Terror, though he held a government post—told me he had been repeatedly surprised both at the extent of the atrocities, which he had not been fully aware of at the time, and the amount of documentation. The pile of evidence is a monument to a time before governments like the Derg learned to keep assassination squads unofficial, before they developed the technique of the off-the-record death, the art of non-attribution in the discourse of political violence.
“We Will Bring Under Our Control Not Only Reactionaries But Nature Itself”.
The trial is taking place in the former Ministry of Central Planning, a circular, Bulgarian-built hall that overlooks the city of Addis Ababa. On the first day we waited for the defendants to arrive by bus from the prison four miles away, a prison called Alem Bekagn, which means The End of the World. I was expecting a large crowd, but there were less than three hundred people present. Of these people about half were relatives of victims, half relatives of the accused. They sat on different sides of the courtroom. There were about fifty lawyers and the same number of journalists and diplomats. That was on the first day. Only a few of the journalists and diplomats lasted the course and only one other representative of the international press stayed for the whole indictment (the Reuters Correspondent, a veteran Ethiopian journalist named Abraham Tsegaye).
On the ceiling above our heads there was a huge, gold-painted escutcheon left over from the days of the Derg. It bore an inscription attributed to Mengistu, a motto that read, hubristically, in Amharic, “We Will Bring Under Our Control Not Only Reactionaries But Nature Itself”. The Derg members, who had been young men in their time of power, looked prematurely aged, but they insisted on standing to attention and demanded to be addressed by their correct military rank. All of them pleaded not guilty, but the line taken by the defence varied from case to case and from individual.
Bear in mind that the hearings, even in the first case, are not yet over, so this is an interim account, based on depositions in court and conversations that I was able to have with defence lawyers. Some of these lawyers were appointed by the court, their salaries paid for by western donor countries as support for proper judicial procedure; those defendants who had the means tended to appoint their own. The lawyers appointed by the court had no choice in the matter; it was their obligation as members of the bar; some of them were dismissed by their clients during the proceedings.
The first of the defendants to speak was Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, an air force captain who was the former Prime Minister, number two in the regime—a figure, it could be said, who bore the same relation to Mengistu as Goering did to Hitler. If anyone in the courtroom was guilty, it was Fikre-Selassie; but his demeanour was unrepentant. His defence had several themes. First, he argued, the Ethiopian Procedural Code stipulated that detainees should be charged within fifteen days. He had waited three years, he said. Secondly, the court was incompetent to try him because it was not independent of the executive. Thirdly the executive had prejudiced the outcome of the trial by public statements imputing guilt to the accused before the proceedings had started.
Fikre-Selassie’s written deposition continued with an account of offences allegedly committed by the EPRP and the TPLF during the civil war, but this was disallowed by the court president. The former Prime Minister concluded by asserting that the purpose of the trial was revenge and that members of the present government were as guilty as he was.
The charge of genocide was a particular target of the defence strategy. On the face of it the charge does seem odd. The Derg were undoubtedly responsible for terrible crimes, but they were not, in the ordinary sense, guilty of genocide: that is, they did not kill people on grounds of race or creed, at least not during the Red Terror. In the Ethiopian penal code, however, genocide has acquired a wider meaning. The subjects of genocide—at least in the Amharic and English versions of the Code—include not just ethnic and religious but also, explicitly, political groups. It is on these grounds that the Special Prosecutor has applied the genocide convention to the deaths of imperial government officials and the Derg’s other political opponents. The defence pointed out that at the time the code was promulgated—in the 1950s—Ethiopia actually did not have any political parties. There was also a variation in the French-language version of the Code, which some defence lawyers claimed invalidated the Genocide clause. The Nuremberg defence, that the trials represented the justice of the victors, was invoked by nearly all the defence lawyers.
Sitting next to me on the observers’ bench in the court was a genial, elegant man in his early sixties, Teshome Gabre-Mariam Bokan. In my New Yorker article I outlined his career: he had been Attorney-General under Haile Selassie and eight years a political prisoner under the Derg. After the EPRDF takeover Teshome became prominent in opposition politics, as he continues to be; he is, however, an adamant supporter of the trials. When Fikre-Selassie cited the procedural code, asserting that he should have been charged within a fifteen day period, Teshome leaned across to me and whispered “I don’t remember him charging me in fifteen days. I don’t remember him charging me at all. It was him who annulled the penal code.”
Ato Teshome’s career, spanning three regimes—those of the Emperor, the Derg and the present government—is an illustration of the exceptional changes that Ethiopia and its legal profession has seen in a single generation. When I remarked that he must have been the youngest Attorney-general in Ethiopian history, he replied “I was the only Attorney-General in Ethiopian history.”
There had, he added, been an honorary one before that. But he wasn’t an Ethiopian; in fact he was Jewish. Teshome explained that when Haile Selassie was in exile during the Second World War the Egyptian monks in Jerusalem thought they’d seize the chance to push the Ethiopians out of the Holy Sepulchre (Ethiopia having had rights in it for a thousand years or more). But the Emperor retained a Jewish lawyer to defend Ethiopia’s interest in the Sepulchre. Later he invited the same lawyer to set up a legal department for the imperial administration.
At that time there wasn’t even a penal code. In my report on the trial I recorded Teshome’s explanation:
Teshome told me. “You have to remember that we were a feudal society until a few decades ago. Modern institutions don’t go back very far in Ethiopia. We didn’t have civil liberties. We didn’t have human rights. What we had was the divine right of kings.”
Ending the culture of impunity
In the official announcement of the first charges the government spokesman stressed that the purpose of the trials was to “bring to an end the culture of impunity in Ethiopia”. Later, when I interviewed Meles Zenawi (then the President of Ethiopia and now, under the new constitution, Prime Minister) he elaborated this point. I asked him if his government had considered any other course of action. He said there was no plausible alternative. They had to come to terms with the events of those years. The only legitimate way, President Meles said, was a trial. Justice must be done and be seen to be done, he said. For the victims and the families of the victims this was the main thing.
It was a new chapter in Ethiopian political history, President Meles said. “It is not motivated by a desire for vengeance. It is a precedent setting exercise. By putting the Derg on trial we are saying that nobody is above the law, that there are certain rights that can’t be messed about with.” And this, said Meles, indicating himself, included people at the highest level of authority. The absence of a rule of law, he said, had been the reason these tragic events had occurred.
But outside government circles I heard a contrary view. Spokesmen for opposition parties argued that the EPRDF was merely paying lip-service to human rights, that the trials were a ploy by a minority government seeking to win approval from western donor countries. While the trials were going on, these opposition politicians claimed, EPRDF ethnic politics was breaking the country apart. The government was dominated by Tigrayans and their agenda was to redirect resources to Tigray.
The inhabitants of the part of the country where Addis Ababa is situated, it may be noted, are not Tigrayan. The city is mixed, but a majority of the inhabitants are Amhara, a people that long dominated the government of Ethiopia. The Amhara are an historically complex ethnic group; under the empire their language and culture were a means of assimilating individuals from the great diversity of peoples in Ethiopia into an administrative class; Amharized Ethiopians dominate the professions and wealthy Amharas were considerable landowners before the Derg nationalised land in the 1970s. The Amhara peasantry were as downtrodden as any other, but the Amhara elite became accustomed to administrative power. Under the Derg, whose members came from all over Ethiopia, the Amhara continued to be the backbone of the administration. For many of them—though there are Amharas in the EPRDF too—the presence of a government dominated by Tigrayans is a threat.
The political situation in Ethiopia today can be compared with that of another collapsed empire, the Soviet Union, the Derg’s sponsor. I suggested in another article that the current situation in Ethiopia is as though communism in the USSR had been overthrown, not by Russians, but by Ukrainians—Amharas standing for Russians and Tigray for the Ukraine. It was as though a government dominated by Ukrainians now ruled from Moscow, I argued, with Ukrainians holding many of the government jobs that ethnic Russians did before. In a country like Ethiopia, where almost all salaried employment depends on state patronage—a legacy both of the empire and the Derg—control of the government apparatus has immediate economic implications. For some, jobs for the living may be more important than vengeance, or justice, for the dead.
Neither Tigrayans nor Amharas are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia; that distinction belongs to the Oromo, in whose territory Addis Ababa actually lies. The Oromo—some of them—have their own quarrel with the government. But the historical rivalry between Amhara and Tigray, the two Highland peoples—one or other of which has always controlled the Ethiopian polity—has been brought to the fore by two recent events. The first is the secession of Eritrea, the northernmost province of Ethiopia, which, with the goodwill of the EPRDF, (its ally in the fight with the Derg) became an independent country in 1994. The second is the radical new constitution introduced by the EPRDF, which divides what remains of Ethiopia into self-governing regions based on language and ethnicity, each with the right of secession.
In the new Ethiopia, Amharas, Tigrayans, Oromos, Somalis and other ethnic groups each have their own territory. On the face of it, this is a courageous recognition of the ethnopolitical realities of the former empire, a constitutional measure that grasps the nettle of ethnicity and attempts to establish equitable relations between the various groups, a radical step that other African countries have balked at. For the old Amhara nomenklatura, however, these reforms are playing with fire: they strike at their fundamental idea of what Ethiopia is, of what they like to call “Ethiopianness”, and the role of Amhara culture in defining it. They suspect the Tigrayans and the Eritreans of a hidden agenda, the balkanization of the country. And, being widely distributed themselves in other regions of the country, Amhara fear ethnic cleansing.
In my original report on the trials I quoted the words of Teshome Gabre-Mariam, the former Attorney-General.
“Look at Rwanda,” he said to me one day, “Look at Yugoslavia. Look what happens when you lift the lid on all this.”
Teshome himself is an illustration of the complexity of ethnicity in Ethiopia. He is the model of an Amhara mandarin, but his last name, Bokan, reveals him to be, in fact, an Amharized Oromo.
“Ethnic politics is irresponsible,” he continued. “It’s anthropological adventurism. The EPRDF are dismembering the country.”
When darkness descends on empire
By Ethiopian standards Teshome was expressing this view in fairly moderate terms. The passion with which Amhara intellectuals talk about the Eritrean secession is remarkable. For them it eclipses the question of the trials. Endrias Eshete, an Amhara emigré intellectual recently returned from the United States, who is a supporter of the present government, suggests that behind the passionate nationalism so many of his countrymen express and the recurrent image of dismemberment there is a kind of mourning.
“Most of the people who go on about the loss of Eritrea have never even been there” he told me.
“It’s really a kind of separation anxiety, a dream they have of the body politic being whole and inviolate. It’s a metaphor. Everyone lost something in the war. This is the way people bring their feelings to the surface: it’s not Eritrea they are mourning, it’s themselves. Eritrea stands for your mother, your husband, your son.”
When darkness descends on empire, Endrias said to me, it can be hard to articulate the sense of loss. “You’re British,” he added, somewhat ambiguously, “I think you know about this.”
There is a still darker side to the public ambivalence about the trials: collaboration. One Amhara official I quoted in my report put it like this: “If you are an Ethiopian of the professional class, your livelihood is so tied to the government that during the time of the Derg you probably made some approach to someone in power that you felt guilty about.” And there are elements of survivor guilt. An official I interviewed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official put it like this: “There’s a feeling of shame. You feel you were not as strong as those who died. In order to survive we developed ways of avoiding reality, as though to say ‘I am not part of this country. I just live here.’”
“We couldn’t help knowing about the killings in the city,” she added, “but we were the last to know about hunger in the countryside. At that time people joined the party to get a scholarship, a salary increment, a promotion. It seemed like the Derg would last forever. And our youth was passing.”
To the Amhara opposition the new constitution and secession of Eritrea are the key issues; the trial of the Derg is a sideshow. But, perhaps with an eye to an international audience, opposition figures tend to stress human rights abuses by the current government. Some go so far as to suggest that there is little to choose between the current government and the Derg. This hardly the case. But force has been added to the opposition case by the fact that the Chairman of the main Amhara political party, the All Amhara Political organization, a distinguished surgeon named Professor Asrat Woldeyes, was sentenced to five years in jail in 1994 on a dubious conviction of plotting armed rebellion. And that, prior to that, he, along with forty senior academics at Addis Ababa University, was dismissed from his post by governmental fiat (the dismissed professors later won a suit for compensation). Or that numbers of other political figures and journalists have been repeatedly detained without charge.
In Ethiopia, in keeping with the highly polarized nature of political debate, local human rights groups are divided between those that support the government and those that oppose it. A report from Amnesty International, however, confirms many of the complaints of the Opposition. It chronicles disappearances and killings since the EPRDF takeover and concludes with this statement: “the message of the trials… will be undermined unless decisive action is taken to stop human rights violations perpetrated by those in power now.”
With Professor Asrat in prison, the leading Opposition figure in Ethiopia is Dr Beyene Petros, another academic drawn into politics. Neither an Amhara, nor an Oromo, Dr Beyene comes from a tiny group in Southern Ethiopia, the Hadiya (This doesn’t mean he is free of ethnic chauvinism. “We were before the Oromo,” he told me with pride. “We consider ourselves one of the ancient peoples of Ethiopia.”)
In a conversation I reported in the New Yorker, Dr Beyene summarized the issue in the following way. There were two opinions about the trials, he said. An extreme one was that the government had no legal or moral right to put the Derg on trial at all. Those who held this view accused the TPLF of atrocities comparable to those of the Derg, particularly in the early days of the civil war, when they were killing EPRP people too. He himself, he said, hated the self-righteous attitude of the EPRDF. They spoke, he said, as though they were performing some miracle. And he didn’t think that the fact that they were bringing the Derg to court cleared them of responsibility for their own crimes. But his position was that the trials should go ahead; and that then they should get back to the abuses of the TPLF themselves, past and present. Western countries, he said, are financing these trials. They are thus indirectly offering a guarantee to the Ethiopian people that justice will be done. They should make sure their money is well spent.
Interviewing Meles Zenawi
I was struck by the intransigence in the tone of political debate in Ethiopia; words like negotiation and consensus seem to be absent from the language. A reporter covering such events is inclined to seek out, for rhetorical purposes, people with clear-cut opinions, opinions that can be vividly juxtaposed; but, as I noted in the article I wrote on the trials, in Ethiopia I found myself doing the opposite: striving to find someone who was neutral.
One of the few who came close said this in explanation of the polarization of the national debate:
“We learned a terrible thing in Mengistu’s time. We learned non-compromise. In 1974 people who could have taken up arms submitted themselves to the Derg. The Emperor himself did so. These people had no idea of the catastrophe that was to come. The Derg taught us: don’t wait for justice, not with any government. That’s what is behind the intransigence of the opposition parties. That’s why the opposition press won’t acknowledge anything good about this government.”
In an interview I conducted with the then President, Meles Zenawi, parts of which were included in my article for the New Yorker, he said something similar. I asked him about the lack of a spirit of compromise in Ethiopia. He agreed that it was absent.
“Politics in this country was essentially armed politics,” he said, “and so you don’t usually win through arguments, through logic, you win through shooting straighter than the other guy. So victories and defeats were to a large extent total. And even if they were not total they were perceived to be total. That does not encourage compromise—live and let live and so forth.”
“So there is a cultural element in it,” Meles continued, “but I don’t think it is purely cultural. The transformations that we are undertaking in Ethiopia now are so fundamental that it wouldn’t be surprising if there was signifiacnt polarization. I don’t think that reforms of this type have been carried out in any other country.”
I found myself remonstrating with acquaintances in the opposition in Addis Ababa. “We could never have had this conversation under the Derg,” I would say. “I’d have been expelled from the country and you would be dead. And this newspaper we are reading—it could never have been printed. And trials like these would never have happened…”
The responses were along these lines: “Why should we be happy just because it is not as bad as the Derg?”
Some were prepared to acknowledge grudgingly the role of the EPRDF in delivering the country from tyranny, but for all of them the question of civil liberties was enmeshed in something more important, something with deeper historical roots, the question of national unity.
Given this polarization in the Ethiopian body politic is there any sense in which the trials offer the hope of reconciliation? It seems to me that in this matter it is necessary to distinguish between reconciling erstwhile enemies and reconciling individuals to their loss. The Government of Ethiopia has identified the purpose of the trials as establishing the rule of law, ending the culture of impunity and providing justice for the victims of the Derg. The opposition maintains that the government’s true motives are rather to consolidate their grip on state power, punish their enemies and curry favour with the international community. At times in Ethiopia I found myself in danger of accepting the terms of this intractable conflict between aspirants to state power. But there is a moral force at work in a courtroom that can transcend such things. Several times during the trial I was reminded of this. One of the vignettes in my report from the courtroom may serve to illustrate it.
Hajji Omar’s story
Every day, in the early days of the trial, in the part of the court reserved for relatives of victims, sat an old man in an embroidered skull-cap and immaculate white leather slippers. He was a Muslim grain trader from the Highland region of Guraghe, named Hajji Omar Jeju. In the court recess, while the lawyers and the rest of us queued for coffee, Hajji Omar would take a jug of water to wash his feet and hands, then lay his prayer mat out on the lawn towards the north to pray. He stayed throughout the first day’s hearing and returned the next, studying the accused through horn-rimmed spectacles, listening attentively to the list of charges. He was waiting to hear the name of his son, Muhidin.
During the Red Terror, he told me, he and his son had been taken together by officials of the kebele (commune) to the Menelik palace. There he was forced to watch while the boy, an EPRP activist, was tortured in front of him—this was a speciality of the Derg’s interrogators. He watched while Muhidin’s fingernails were pulled out with pliers, the soles of his feet beaten till he could not walk. At night he cradled his son in his arms to ease the pain from his hands and feet. After several nights of this Muhidin was taken away by security police; his father never saw him again.
I asked Hajji Omar if he knew any of the defendants first-hand.
“I know all of them,” he said. “When I was trying to find out what had happened to my son I went to see Teka Tulu. I went to see Fisseha Desta. Then I tried to see Fikre-Selassie and Legesse Asfaw. And Debella Dinsa, because I knew he had interrogated him. But I failed. They refused. I was threatened with death if I pursued the matter. In fact I know which of them signed his death warrant. But I still don’t know how my son died. I am waiting for the court to say.”
A few days later, I reported, the long recitation of the charges by the special prosecutor was nearing its end.
Charge 180 ran: “On such and such a day the accused assembled and ordered the execution in an unknown place on the grounds that they were members of EPRP, a counter-revolutionary group, of the following fifty-one persons…” A list of names followed, the latest of many such lists. As the prosecutor recited the names, Hajji Omar began to weep silently. His son’s name had been spoken. After the court adjourned he said goodbye to me. It was the last time I saw him. He did not return.
The case of Hajji Omar and his son, it seems to me, is a clear argument for a view that has been voiced a number of times in this conference and elsewhere, the view that says a key function of human rights trials is a kind of moral release for the survivors of state violence. Hajji Omar wanted public acknowledgement, he wanted to bear witness. He wanted to mourn. He wanted his son’s body to bury, but failing that he wanted the name of his son entered in the record as one of the fallen. These things were more important to him than vengeance. He didn’t stay for the verdict. That was just as well, because there still hasn’t been one. As I speak, a year later, the trial continues.
Another of the relatives who attended the trial was a young man named Astateke Chaka, part of whose story I also told in my original report. He was the Chairman of the Anti Red Terror Committee, the organization of victims and relatives of victims established immediately after the EPRDF takeover. Like everyone else, like everyone in the court—like almost everyone in Ethiopia— Astatke had his story of suffering. His brother had vanished one day at the height of the Terror. The family only found out what happened by going round to every hospital in the city till they found his body. He had been stabbed to death by a kebele militia.
“We had to pay three hundred birr to get the body back,” Astatke said. (Three hundred birr is about fifty dollars.) “That was normal. If someone was shot the militiamen would say the money was to pay for the bullet. We were lucky to find him. Usually the bodies were just thrown away.”
Soon afterwards, as I recorded in my report on the trial, Astateke’s father was arrested and tortured. Then his mother. Astatke himself was ten years old at the time.
“We knew who killed my brother. They would sit and drink and boast about what they did. And at the women’s meeting in the kebele cadres insulted my mother, saying ‘Why do you wear black? Your son was a dog.’ My mother became angry and insulted them back. So they put her in torture. They burst open the scar from the operation she had when she gave birth to me. But they weren’t ready for her to die, so they brought her to the hospital, where we found her. During that time we had nothing to eat. People were afraid to visit us.”
“Under the Derg no one said anything about such things,” Astatake said. “People still don’t like to talk about it. No one was allowed to mourn. When the EPRDF came we went immediately to search for the murderers. The EPRDF came from outside so they didn’t know who these people were. We organised meetings for denunciation. They were kangaroo courts. [Astatake’s English was good, but he used the term “kangaroo court” without an awareness of the pejorative implications of his choice of words.] Nobody knew what would happen. People have different ideas about what justice is. We wanted the people responsible for the killing to be caught and held. But now some of the families just want vengeance. It’s hard to explain to them why it takes so long.”
I asked Astatke whether there was any difficulty getting witnesses to come forward.
“There are some who refuse to testify,” he said. “Some people who have lost their children now say ‘I gave everything to God. I have nothing left to give.’ Or they say ‘Maybe the EPRDF will go. What then? Maybe the prisoners will be released. Where will I go then? They will kill us again.’ The Protestants, especially, are like this. I don’t know why. Not everyone has woken up from the nightmare yet.”
As I reported at the time there were other potential witnesses who, according to the Special Prosecutor, refused to testify because of their political opposition to the EPRDF government.
“Having trials is not the same as having the bodies to bury,” Astatke told me, “not the same as burying your dead in the proper manner. Muslims and Christians died together in the Red Terror; their bones are all mixed up, they can’t be reburied as they should be, so we think it would be better to put them in a museum.”
I asked him if he had heard of Tuol Sleng, the museum in a former Khmer Rouge torture centre in Cambodia.
“Yes,” he said, “and we have somewhere like that. It is called Bermuda. They used to torture people there. It was like the Bermuda triangle. No one ever came out of there. I’d like to make the Bermuda into a museum.”
Astateke invited me to the inauguration of a memorial to the Red Terror in Meskal Square. A modest, stone marker had been erected in the middle of the huge amphitheatre where Mengistu had launched the campaign. Formerly this had been adorned with enormous portraits of Mengistu, Marx, Lenin and Engels, now it was a great blank, ready for the next phase of Ethiopian history to happen, waiting for a new set of heroes. A group of protesters surrounded a black sedan with photographs of the dead plastered on its sides. They carried an inverted portrait of Mengistu, his face obliterated by a red cross. “Maneater,” they shouted again and again. “Mengistu fascistu. Monster. He has drunk Ethiopian blood. Let him be burned alive.” Mengistu’s portrait was doused in gasoline and set alight. A single TV camera recorded the event.
The story of Dr Managesha
On the last day I spent in court in Addis Ababa I had a hint of what it might feel like to have to resolve these conflicting desires: the thirst for vengeance and the yearning for reconciliation. And I found out what Astatake meant by the word “Bermuda”. Here is my account as published.
Charge 186 concerned the first Ethiopian who had invited me to his home, Dr Managesha Gebrehiwot, a debonair ex-Minister and former Dean of the University.
Dismissed after the Derg takeover, Dr Managesha, with his wife, Almaz Teklu, a woman of great beauty, opened a travel agency called Wonderland, near Meskal Square. It was part of their work to deal with the few foreigners who came to Ethiopia at that time, those who were prepared to risk rebel attacks to see the medieval rock churches of Lalibela or the ancient stelae at Axum. But such contact with outsiders laid them open to the baleful attention of security men—and Almaz and Managesha were Tigrayans, from the province where insurgents were giving the Derg most trouble.
When the judge read out Charge 186 and I heard Managesha’s name I felt a stab of guilt. Since that time in 1984 I had not tried to contact him or Almaz. I had passed Wonderland once since then; it was boarded up. Now Managesha was dead. The charge detailed his last days, under detention, with twelve others, in a Bermuda.
“In the Central and so-called Bermuda investigation departments,” the charge ran, “there was no food nor medicine, and not enough air, nor sufficient place to sleep—these conditions being calculated to result in their death, having arbitrarily designated them as anti-revolution, anti-people and subversive members of the EPRP, EPLF, TPLF”.
Such were the terms of art, the terrible clichés, exhumed by the Special Prosecutor from the documents of the former regime. These documents spoke of feudal remnants, reactionaries, anarchists, and—that strange oxymoron—anti-people elements. Here was the scrap-heap of history, the categories to which brothers, husbands, daughters, sons, friends and acquaintances—Dr Managesha among them—had been reduced by the Derg’s hand-me-down totalitarianism.
The words recurred hypnotically in charge after charge, the judge rattling them off at the unrelenting pace of a tobacco auctioneer, determined to get to the end of the red book before the end of the second day. The court translator—there was only one—had long abandoned the attempt to keep up. Several times he slipped and referred, serendipitously, to “the Red Error”.
Words and phrases from the charges seemed to float in the sunlit air like particles of dust: Taken in the darkness of the night… Murdered in his bed chamber… Thrown on the fields of Desse… Subjected to torture in the Bermuda.
By the time we got to Dr Managesha’s case some of the defendants were dozing, even as the crimes committed in their name were held up to the light. Teka Tulu, obese and diabetic, with a flowing white beard, a man who was said to have shot and killed his own sister, had been asleep for some time. No one tried to wake him.
After the reading of the charges, the trial adjourned for several weeks. When I returned to Addis in the new year, I tried to find out more about the fate of Dr Managesha. Ato Teshome, who knew everyone, had a telephone number for Almaz. She was still living in the city and had reopened Wonderland—this time as a hair-dressing salon. I called on her there.
It was Lent and she was fasting. She showed the strain of the years since I had seen her last. After Managesha’s arrest, she told me, security men came asking about their eldest son, then a teenager. A foreigner who was a friend of theirs took the boy out of the country pretending he was the son of his maid. For the next seven years Almaz had no contact with her son. And for seven years she did not know for certain whether Managesha himself was dead or alive, whether the food she took to the jail each day was given to him or taken by the guards. She found out only after the EPRDF takeover 1n 1991 that he had died in detention in 1986, barely a year and a half after his arrest.
“I found it out from the television,” Almaz told me. “I was watching with my youngest son. There were people arguing. I thought it was a play, a soap opera. Then I heard Managesha’s name. They were talking about the Bermuda, interrogating a man who had tortured people there.”
“There was another man who had been a prisoner, a man with only one eye. He was describing how Managesha died, how they cut his leg while they were torturing him and it became infected with gangrene.”
“I suddenly realised who they were talking about,” said Almaz. “It was a terrible shock. It was horrible. I had to take my young son out of the room.”
Three years later, during the trial, Almaz went to the court, to see the Derg in the dock.
“But I don’t want to go again,” she said. “The way they talk… They have no sense of sorrow. They have no regret at all. They still think they did a great job. How can you forgive people like that?
Dr Managesha, I learned from other sources, had been accused of involvement in a CIA plot to unseat Mengistu. A number of other Ethiopian dissidents and an American CIA agent were arrested at the same time as him. The American was released after negotiations with the Derg by Vernon Walters, then the CIA’s Deputy-Director; but the Ethiopians all disappeared with Managesha into the netherworld, into the Bermuda and other places of confinement—prisons, palace cellars, barracks and police stations—the Derg’s Gulag, its invisible, urban Siberia.
I was directed eventually to the site of the Bermuda by a former detainee. He was one of few who survived. Haunted by his experience, he was unwilling to be named. Nor would he accompany me inside. He waited at the gate, while I entered with a minder from the Department of Internal Affairs.
The Bermuda was a nondescript villa of rusticated stone near the Church of St Gabriel in a suburb near the southern edge of the city, a house with no number, occupied by semi-demobilised soldiers who seemed barely aware of its previous function. The only thing that distinguished it from its neighbours was an underground concrete bunker in the garden. It looked like a fall-out shelter, but might have been a septic tank. It was half-full of water. There were dark stains on the walls.
“That’s where they kept the prisoners,” said the man from the Department of Internal Affairs.
“I really don’t like coming here,” he added.
As the charge sheet said: Not enough air, nor sufficient place to sleep.
“Are you sure this is the place where you were imprisoned?” I asked the former detainee as we left. “The actual Bermuda?”
“There are many Bermudas,” he replied wearily. “The whole city was a Bermuda.”
A byword for affliction
Walking around Addis Ababa during breaks from the trial I found myself retracing the routes I had followed during the Derg era. In my report on the trials, I recollected the atmosphere of fear and deception during that time, when foreigners were trailed by security men and only allowed to stay in specified hotels, when careless words cost lives. At that time it was impossible to know what was happening, where the bones were buried, where the Bermudas were. Such things were not spoken of, certainly not with foreigners. And Ethiopians are still not accustomed to speaking directly about them. Not everyone is happy that they should be spoken of at all. The trials have become the central symbol of a wider process, a process of adjustment to a revolution that has not yet ended, of coming to terms with a history of war and famine and state violence that, to the embarrassment of cosmopolitan Ethiopians, has made their country an international byword for affliction.
I returned to my hotel one evening to find all the guests—most of them Ethiopians—glued to the television. I knew that Ethiopian television had been broadcasting excerpts from the trial and background interviews with various commentators. I had been one of those interviewed for the programme, so I craned over their heads to see if I was on. What the onlookers were watching so avidly was indeed a trial, but it was not the trial of the Derg. The TV in the hotel lounge was tuned, not to ETV but to CNN; and the trial was not the one up the road, but one four thousand miles away, the trial of O.J. Simpson. This was the preferred viewing of many of the Ethiopian elites.
It may be that a trial of the Derg is, in some sense, too straightforward an event for Ethiopians, a people of great and unremitting political sophistication. History has made it hard for them to imagine that judicial process could actually be a vehicle for truth. In Ethiopia truth is something that is approached not directly but obliquely, by analogy. Trials, it seems, are seen mainly as a contest of power.
Hamlet in Addis Ababa
Towards the end of my stay I went to the theatre with Teshome Gabre-Mariam, Haile Selassie’s former Attorney-General. It was the opening night of a new production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, a vast Pharaonic edifice built in the time of the Emperor. This, I was given to understand, was the first new theatrical production there in decades, since the Derg’s security forces had killed striking workers outside the theatre in the 1970s. As I reported, the people of Addis Ababa, who mostly shunned the real-life drama in the courtroom up the hill, flocked to see the goings-on on stage in Elsinore. The queue outside the theatre was half-a-mile long. Riot police were called to control the crowd.
All week we had been in court hearing about death and treachery, exhumations, the killing of the emperor. Now we sat watching regicide, revenge killings, the corruption of the state, gravediggers, a coup d’etat—the catalogue of unnatural acts and casual slaughters characteristic of the Elizabethan revenge play.
The moral world of Elsinore, with its Machiavellian politics, its veneration of ancestors and vortices of revenge seemed not so far from Ethiopia under the Derg, where everyday life was a theatre of fear. The sets at the National Theatre thrust the point home. They were beautiful, realistic representations of recognisable Highland Ethiopian townscapes, a Shoan Elsinore.
The parallels were not lost on the audience at the National Theatre. They gasped at the ghost of the old king; they whooped at Hamlet’s oblique resistance to the demands of court life and the erosion of Denmark’s territorial integrity under the misgovernment of his step-father. They applauded every act of revenge, every rapier thrust. For an Ethiopian audience today, it occurred to me talking to Teshome afterwards, the central question in Hamlet, the question that remains at the end of the play, is whether Fortinbras, the rebel who takes over the state of Denmark when the usurper Claudius has been killed, can really institute an improvement in the body politic. That is to say, can a new regime save the state, or merely preside over its dissolution. In Ethiopia today that question is still in the balance.
The episodes from the Derg trial that I have described here will stand, I hope, for the time being, in place of a full analytical account. I came away from the Ethiopian trials puzzled and fearful. The fact that the trials are occurring at all is a remarkable achievement, but they don’t seem to be fulfilling the role in national life, the public function, that might be expected of them. Are there alternatives to the trials, some means of reconciliation in Ethiopian tradition that lies outside the legal process? Can a government that has come to power by force ever give its former opponents a fair trial? Or is this possible only for an international tribunal?
In the case of Ethiopia the trials are part of a process of national political and administrative reform that involves, among other things, redrawing the borders of the country, rewriting the constitution and overhauling the judiciary. The completion of the trials, the message they impart, their place in a process of national reconciliation, depends crucially on the success of this wider programme, which must be the subject of consideration on another occasion. ★
This paper was presented at a conference in Potsdam in 1996 called “Amnesty: the Politics of Memory”, organized by the Einstein Forum. It followed—and overlaps with—a piece written for the New Yorker, published as “An African Nuremberg” (2 October 1995) which is quoted in the paper. This New Yorker piece is still, as far as I know, the only extended journalistic coverage of the trials of the Derg. I also discussed the trials in passing in another lecture, “The Hazards of Reporting Complex Emergencies in Africa”, delivered at Nuffield College, Oxford in 1997 and in a subsequent account of the burial of Haile Selassie I, “Burying the Emperor” (Granta 2001). In 2009 a collection of papers on the trials, edited by Kjetil Tronvall, was published under the title The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional justice challenged.
The trials of the Derg members dragged on for another ten years or more. In a 2014 afterword to “An African Nuremberg”, I noted some of the developments over that period.
Some lesser Derg officials were set free in the late 1990s. A few were formally acquitted. A number of senior military officers were released in order to serve in the war with Eritrea in the late 1990s, then rearrested.
By 2004, over 2000 of those who had been detained in 1991 in connection with the trial still remained in prison; 33 had died there. The death of the emperor continued to be a subject of controversy up to the day of his funeral in 2000 (see “Burying the Emperor”, April 2001).
In 2003, in a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 33 of the remaining Derg members asked for forgiveness for their crimes. Their letter, originally written in August 2003, was published in the January 2004 issue of the Ethiopian magazine, The Reporter. The signatories included Fisseha Desta, Fikre Sellasie Weg-deres and Melaku Tefera.
“We, the few who are being tried for what had happened,” ran the English translation of the letter, “realise that it is time to beg the Ethiopian public for their pardon for the mistakes done knowingly, or unknowingly.”
“We are the people who remain from the regime, our actions had the support of the majority of the people who benefitted, while we believed it was also the cause of the civil war that has consumed the life of the people and destroyed property.”
“Even though we were the sworn servants of the regime of the emperor to protect it, when the people showed their dissatisfaction against the regime, we decided to side with them, instead of protecting it,” the letter added.
In April 2004, World’s End, the prison where the Derg members had been held for a decade, was converted, under the auspices of the African Union, into a memorial to mark the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. The prisoners were moved elsewhere.
June 2004 saw the death of one of the three former members of the Derg who had taken shelter in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa in 1990. Lt-Gen Tesfaye Gebrekidan (who ruled Ethiopia for six days in May 1990 following Mengistu’s departure) was said to have died after a fight with one of his fellow fugitives, Berhanu Bayeh, a former politburo member and Foreign Minister.
In December 2006, finally, more than seventy officials of the Derg were found guilty of genocide and other crimes. Thirty-four of them were in court for the sentencing. A total of 14 others had died during the lengthy process; 25 were tried in absentia. The trial ended on 26 May 2008 with death sentences for all the accused.
In 2009 a privately-owned Red Terror Martyrs Memorial and museum was established near Meskal Square.
In 2010, following a petitition from religious bodies in Ethiopia, the death sentences handed down in 2008 were commuted to life imprisonment. And on 4 October 2011 sixteen senior Derg officials were pardoned and released. They included Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, Legesse Asfaw, Melaku Tefera and Fisseha Desta. It was the last gesture of Meles Zenawi, first the President, then the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who died in 2012.
In 2013 Kefalegn Alemu Worku, a prison guard during the Derg era, who was convicted of genocide in absentia in 2000, was arrested in Denver, Colorado and sentenced to 22 years imprisonment for immigration fraud.
The two surviving Derg members in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa entered the third decade of their residence there. Despite rumours of his death Mengistu Haile Mariam and his family continued to live in Zimbabwe, under the protection of President Robert Mugabe.