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Defense Starts Against Ethiopian Leaders

December 16, 2003

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Nine years into the trial of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and his regime, attorneys finally opened the defense case Tuesday against 209 charges of crimes against humanity.

The genocide trial of Mengistu and 69 of his top aides has become a lesson in the challenges of using a local justice system to prosecute crimes committed by a former dictator and his government in a war-ravaged country.

As Iraqi and U.S. officials begin debating how to try former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, the trials once hailed as ``Africa’s Nuremberg,″ could provide an example of the difficulties local courts have with these kinds of cases.

While no one knows how many people Mengistu’s Marxist regime killed during the 1970s nationwide purge of students, intellectuals and politicians, some experts estimate 150,000 suspected government opponents were killed.

Human Rights Watch described the so-called Red Terror as ``one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.″

Rebels led by the current prime minister, Meles Zenawi, seized power in 1991 and Mengistu _ who had ruled since 1974 _ fled into exile in Zimbabwe. The new government immediately began planning trials for those responsible for the Red Terror.

Prosecutors decided to try Mengistu and 32 other top leaders in absentia; the government eventually captured 37 other suspects, who have been attending the trial since it began in December 1994. Mengistu has never publicly responded to the charges and does not have an attorney representing him.

Ethiopia’s notoriously inefficient courts have convicted 1,017 people since 1994 for participating in the Red Terror, but 6,426 await trial. More than 3,000 of them, like Mengistu, live in exile.

Dozens of suspects died in custody before trial, and hundreds of witnesses also have died, making it equally difficult for the prosecution and the defense to present their cases. Both sides often request long breaks, insisting they are needed for the process to be fair.

In Mengistu’s case, the charge sheet and evidence list is 8,000 pages long. Of the 106 top officials originally charged, 43 have died and 25 have already been convicted, special prosecutor Joseph Kiros said.

Victims relatives say the slow pace, lack of convictions and numerous delays have diminished the trials’ value. Many also complain that the trials have produced scant information about why the purges took place or how the victims were chosen.

``The trials have not really helped heal the wounds, and by dragging on for so long they have lost their value to many,″ said Ermias Woldeamlack, a witness whose three brothers were killed because they joined an opposition political party. ``I don’t think bringing the so-called perpetrators to court has helped because we still don’t know why these people died.″

Few people show up at the makeshift courtroom in a Ministry of Planning conference room to hear the testimony and little is reported in the government-run newspapers and radio. The Red Terror is not taught in schools, and most Ethiopian children know nothing about it.

``At one point, when Mengistu was overthrown, people were interested in the trials and newspapers reported on it, but now people are tired of it,″ Ermias said. ``I believe Ethiopia has never confronted the past.″

Information Minister Bereket Simon said the trials were vital ``if we are interested in avoiding genocide and massacres″ in the future. ``But given our inefficiency in the judicial system, I fully agree that we need to revamp and overhaul it,″ he said.

Fikre Selassie Wogderesse, prime minister under Mengistu, and Mengistu’s vice president, Fissiha Desta, filed into court Tuesday to hear their attorneys begin calling witnesses.

The old men were well dressed and appeared in good health, which was probably a good thing, since court observers expect the trial to continue for years.

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