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FACTBOX-Key facts on Ethiopia's former ruler Mengistu

(Reuters) - An Ethiopian court sentenced former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam to life in prison on Thursday, but he is exiled safe from the punishment in Zimbabwe.

After a 12-year trial, Mengistu was found guilty in absentia last month of killing thousands of people during his 17-year reign.

Mengistu, who has lived a lavish but reclusive life in exile in Zimbabwe since his 1991 overthrow, was tried in Addis Ababa.

Here are some important facts about him.

* Mengistu seized power in 1974 after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie who died the following year after being either murdered by his captors or denied the medical treatment that could have kept him alive.

* Mengistu became secretary-general in 1984 of a new Workers Party of Ethiopia, modeled on the Soviet Communist Party.

* His Marxist policies, which he began abandoning in 1990 with some economic reforms, left a country ravaged by economic decline, famine and regional conflicts that consumed half the state budget. In a 1984-85 famine, up to one million Ethiopians starved to death.

* Born in 1937 in Walayitta, Ethiopia, he joined the army and graduated from military academy in 1966. He was an obscure army officer when the 1974 revolution overthrew the emperor and clawed his way to the top in the military junta through power struggles.

* He replaced ancient feudalism with totalitarian rule from 1977, marked by “Red Terror” purges and war, with catastrophic hunger compounding Ethiopia’s woes. Under Mengistu, tens of thousands were butchered, tortured or detained. Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire of the war against northern rebels and 700,000 peasants were forcibly resettled to starve the rebels of support.

* Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 after guerrilla forces led by current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi toppled his 17-year Marxist regime. His trial on genocide charges began with procedural hearings in 1992 and began in earnest in 1994.