ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was found guilty in absentia of genocide on Tuesday after the 12-year trial of one of Africa’s bloodiest governments.
Mengistu, who now lives in Zimbabwe, was accused with top members of his military government of killing thousands during a 17-year rule which began with the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and included war, purges and famine.
“Members of the Derg (Mengistu’s junta) who are present in court today and those who are being tried in absentia have conspired to destroy a political group and kill people with impunity,” said the High Court judgment.
“They set up a hit squad to decimate, torture and destroy groups opposing the Mengistu regime,” it said.
The genocide verdict, which carries a maximum death sentence, was passed by two votes to one on the three-judge panel. The dissenting judge said the crimes did not fit the definition of genocide.
Mengistu was ousted by guerrillas led by now Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 1991 and fled to Zimbabwe, where he leads a luxurious though reclusive life.
Zimbabwe’s government had no official comment on Mengistu’s conviction, but the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change said he should go home.
Mengistu was tried in absentia in Addis Ababa with 73 others, including former Prime Minister Fikre Selassie Wogderesse and former Vice President Fissiha Desta.
All were found guilty, except for one, Corporal Begashaw Gurmesa. He was ruled to have opposed the purges while working as a regional administrator and was set free after 16 years in jail. “I am very glad,” he said as he was released.
About half the accused were in court. The grey-haired, mainly former military officers stood erect one-by-one as their names were read, betraying little emotion as the verdict came.
Fourteen of the accused have died since proceedings began in 1992, while 25, including Mengistu, are in exile.
In the 1977-78 “Red Terror” campaign, the most notorious of Mengistu’s purges, suspected opponents were executed by garrotting or shooting. Bodies were tossed into the streets.
Many Ethiopians hope the verdict, postponed from May, will close the door on one of the country’s darkest periods.
“Mengistu sought to right the wrongs made by his feudal predecessors but in the end he committed far greater wrongs than they did,” businessman Ephraim Zwede said.
“At least the killers of our children are convicted,” added Hailu Abera, who lost a cousin in the Red Terror. “I am relieved. We as a nation went through so much under Mengistu.”
Mengistu’s most prominent alleged victim was Emperor Haile Selassie, said to have been strangled in bed and secretly buried under a latrine in his palace.
According to the court ruling, Mengistu’s government directly killed more than 2,000 people, including 60 top officials, ministers and royal family members executed by firing squad. About 2,400 people were tortured, the court said.
Many, however, say this is the tip of an iceberg.
Witnesses told the court family members who went to morgues to collect bodies of loved ones were asked to pay for bullets that killed them. Gizaw Tefera said soldiers who killed his father cut his head off and offered it for auction at a market.
“No one wanted to buy my father’s head,” he said in 2000.
An Argentine forensic expert said some remains exhumed from mass graves showed victims were killed by garrotting.
“We found green nylon ropes knotted tight around their necks,” forensic expert Mercedes Doreth said in 2002.
Evidence at the trial included signed execution orders and videos of torture sessions.
Mengistu and his officials face sentencing on December 28. Ethiopia defines genocide as intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups.
Analysts say Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is unlikely to hand over Mengistu now he has been found guilty. His army helped train Mugabe’s rebels to fight against white rule.
For months in 1984, Mengistu denied that famine was ravaging Ethiopia’s north and aid workers have recalled how he flew in planeloads of whisky to celebrate the anniversary of his revolution. One million people starved to death.