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Twenty eight years holed up in Italian Embassy

Berhanu Bayeh 1989

The hope was that by now they should have left the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa where they have been given refuge for the past 28 years, and walked free. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked upon a new course of politics in the country and talked in a speech in the Millennium Hall on May 2018 about a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation that could even be extended to the two Derg officials, Berhanu Bayeh, 82 and Addis Tedla, 73, who are under the protection of the embassy walls. In June 2018, a local newspaper, Addis Admass announced their stay at the embassy could finally be drawing to a close. Nothing has come out of that. What happened?

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s statement in Millennium Hall, the new administration has changed the tune, the then Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Fitsum Arega telling the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on August 2018 that: “As far as I know, there is no plan on the part of the government to grant amnesty to persons responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity”.

For the time being, the saga is far from over and the ill-fated officials are likely to stay behind in the virtual prison for some time to come. This makes the whole episode strange because other leadership of the Derg who were charged under indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity were pardoned and released in October 2011. So why this particular case has become complicated?

This is the subject of a book, “I noti ospiti” (‘Known guests‘) written in Italian a few months ago by Giuseppe Mistretta, former Italian ambassador to Ethiopia (2014 to 2017), and Giuliano Fragnito, former first secretary of the Italian embassy in Addis Ababa.

With the help of an Italian journalist who did an oral summary of certain parts of the book to Ethiopia Observer and some other sources, here are the background and some of the facts we know.

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) marched towards the capital in 1991, which overthrew the Derg, that ruled the nation for 17 years in an iron grip, the leader Mengistu Hailemarim fled to Zimbabwe, where he got asylum and remain to this day living in relative luxury. A drama right out of spy novel was unfolding when eleven other senior Derg officials, including minister of foreign affairs, Birahnu Bayeh, chief of staff of the armed forces, Addis Tedla, acting prime minister Hailu Yimenu, acting president and former military commander in Eritrea, Tesfaye Gebre Kidan slipped quietly into the compound of the embassy under cover of darkness. Seven of them left voluntarily instantly, Hailu Yemanu committed suicide in June 1991. Tesfaye Gebre Kidan allegedly killed by one of his companions in 2004.  Berhanu Bayeh and Addis Tedla, the two remaining officials, have stayed in the embassy, enjoying “diplomatic immunity” for the past twenty-eight years.

Why are the officials sheltered there?

The “I noti ospiti” had a citation from then Italian ambassador to Ethiopia, Segio Angeletti, who was quoted as saying. “According to the Italian Constitution and the sentences of the Constitutional Court, people accused of genocide cannot be handed over to the local authorities if the death penalty was foreseen”.

A humanitarian gesture, writes the authors Mistretta and Fragnito, that the Italian government has not questioned ever since. Birhanu Bayeh and Addis Tedla, who had been alongside Mengistu for all the terms of the regime and particularly the former who had been an ideologue, over the years have never expressed regret to any crime committed. They both demanded to be tried by an Italian court and refuse to leave accommodation unless granted a pass for extradition.

The case of Tesfaye Gebre Kidan: Was he murdered on the embassy ground?

Tesfaye Gebrekidan was a lieutenant general in the Ethiopian armed forces. He was appointed vice president and minister of defence by President Mengistu Hailemariam on April 26, 1991. When Mengistu resigned as president and departed for Zimbabwe on May 21, 1991, Tesfaye succeeded him as acting president. Tesfaye surrendered the government to the rebel forces after their entry to Addis Ababa on May 27, 1991.

According to Paul B. Henze, Tesfaye, who was the acting president for barely a month and was in regular contact with then American Ambassador Robert G. Houdek when the regime was crumbling, had first sought sanctuary at the US embassy, but the Ambassador persuaded him not to press the request. “Houdek thereby avoided an arrangement that could have troubled U.S relations with the new EPRDF led government for months to come. Tesfaye applied to the Italian Embassy for asylum and accepted, along with a few other senior officials,” Paul Henze wrote in Layers of Time.

During his stay in the embassy, it was said that Tesfaye suffered a stroke and he moved around with a wheelchair. He reportedly disagreed violently with Berhanu Bayeh. On June 2, 2004, the day of the celebration of the Italian day, Berhanu struck Tesfaye on his head with a bottle, according to a waiter who was present on the spot, cited by the authors of the book, “I noti ospiti”. He bled, causing him to lose his balance. “The wound inflicted did not seem serious at first, the embassy doctor intervened, giving him some antibiotics. However, his heart stopped, causing bewilderment.”

The doctor excluded cause of death by head injury as Tesfaye did not lose much blood. He was taken to Menelik II Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The authors say since this happened on the Italian celebration day, it sparked many rumours.

To be continued.

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