ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian court spared former Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam from the death penalty on Thursday, sentencing him to life in prison for genocide during a 17-year rule stained by “Red Terror” purges.
It is unlikely Mengistu, now nearing 70, will serve any prison time after the government in Zimbabwe, where he has been exiled for 16 years, said it would not extradite him.
After a 12-year trial, Mengistu was found guilty in absentia last month of killing thousands of people during his years in power, which began with ousting Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and included war, brutal purges and famine.
“Considering the age of the accused ... and the state of their health ... the court has rejected the prosecution’s call for the death penalty and passed life imprisonment,” a panel of judges told the court in Addis Ababa.
“The court also decided that passing the death sentence on people who are aged and suffering from sickness could not be considered as jurisprudence but rather as a vendetta.”
The prosecution said it had appealed against the sentence.
Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 after he was toppled by guerrillas led by now Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Zimbabwe’s acting Minister of Information and Publicity Paul Mangwana said the sentence “does not change anything”.
“He still remains our guest. We do not have any request for extradition as far as I know,” he added.
Some in Ethiopia criticised the sentence.
“As a Christian, I forgive, but as an Ethiopian and a victim of the Derg’s nightmarish rule, I will never forget it,” said Mulugeta Asrat, whose father was killed by Mengistu’s Derg junta. “Today’s sentence makes a mockery of justice. Mengistu no doubt will be opening a bottle in Zimbabwe.”
Seventy three others also stood trial. All were found guilty, except for one. Fourteen of the accused have died since proceedings began in 1992, while 25 are in exile.
The grey-haired, mainly former military officers smiled when the sentences, ranging from 25 years to life, were passed.
“Ethiopia, by creating these trials, is taking an important step but for justice to be done Mengistu has to face his victims and face the penalty,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.
Mengistu, whose Marxist policies left a country ravaged by economic decline, replaced feudalism with totalitarian rule.
The period was marked by the 1977-78 “Red Terror” purges in which suspected opponents were executed by garroting or shooting and bodies were tossed into the streets.
Mengistu was an obscure army officer when a 1974 revolution overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, said to have been strangled in bed and secretly buried under a latrine in his palace.
Mengistu clawed his way to the top of the junta through power struggles.
According to the Ethiopian 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.
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. One said soldiers who killed his father cut his head off and offered it for auction at a market.
Trial evidence included signed execution orders and videos of torture sessions. Ethiopia defines genocide as intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups.
For months in 1984, Mengistu denied a devastating famine in Ethiopia’s north. Aid workers recall how he flew in planeloads of whisky to celebrate the anniversary of his revolution as hunger that eventually killed one million people deepened.
Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Nairobi