May 26, 2008 / 12:14 PM / 12 years ago

Ethiopian court hands death sentence to Mengistu

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s supreme court on Monday sentenced to death former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, granting a prosecution appeal that argued a life sentence he was given for genocide was unequal to his crimes.

But Mengistu, who has lived a life of comfortable exile in Zimbabwe since he was driven from power in 1991, is unlikely to face punishment unless Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe loses a run-off election next month and cedes power.

“Considering the prosecution’s appeal that a life sentence was not commensurate to the crimes committed by the Mengistu regime, the court decided to sentence him to death,” the court said in its ruling.

The prosecution in July appealed a life term handed to Mengistu in January 2007, after he was found guilty of genocide for thousands of killings during a 17-year rule that included famine, war and the “Red Terror” purges of suspected opponents.

He and more than a dozen other senior officers were found guilty after a 12-year trial that ruled Mengistu’s government was directly responsible for the deaths of 2,000 people and the torture of at least 2,400.

Witnesses had told the court that family members who went to collect the bodies of their loved ones were asked to pay for the bullets that killed them, and evidence included torture videos.

Mengistu seized power in 1974 after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, and clawed his way to the top in the military junta called the Derg.

His regime’s brutality was exemplified by the Red Terror purges of 1977-78, in which at least 1,200 suspected political opponents were murdered and their bodies dumped in the streets as a warning to others.

“Crimes committed by Mengistu and his co-defendants by killing an emperor and burying him under a toilet is unheard of in the annals of human history,” the court ruling said.

Mengistu’s 19 co-defendants were also sentenced to death, but one, Lieutenant Akililou Belae, was sentenced to life.

The sentence will be carried out after the head of state approves it.

Zimbabwe has refused to extradite Mengistu since he fled there in 1991, when rebels led by current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi toppled his regime and took the capital Addis Ababa.

But were Mugabe to cede power if he loses next month’s run-off to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Mengistu could be extradited.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in late 2006 said it would withdraw the protection afforded by Mugabe’s government, which considers Mengistu a friend of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ )

Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Giles Elgood

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