A Dutch-Ethiopian man was sentenced to life in jail on Friday after Dutch judges found him guilty of war crimes committed during Ethiopia’s bloody purges in the late 1970s, a period known as the “Red Terror”.
Eshetu Alemu, 63, was “guilty of war crimes and treated his fellow citizens in a cold and calculating manner… including robbing them of their right to life,” presiding judge Mariette Renckens told the court in The Hague.
The tribunal “sentences him to life in prison, because this is the only appropriate measure of punishment that can be given,” the judge said.
Alemu, who had been sentenced to death in Ethiopia in absentia, has been in jail in The Netherlands for the last two years awaiting trial.
But neither he nor his lawyers were in court to hear the verdict, a situation Renckens condemned as “deplorable.”
Families of victims loudly applauded as the judges left the bench, shouting “Finally justice has been done, thank you!”
– Brutal reprisals –
Prosecutors said Alemu, a long-time Dutch resident, was a henchman for former Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in the late 1970s, conducting a reign of terror in the African country’s northwestern Gojjam province where he was the top administrator.
Mengistu, a senior military commander ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1977 following the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassi in 1974, and carried out a series of brutal reprisals against the political opposition of the revolutionary regime.
A total of 321 victims were named in four war crimes charges, which included “arbitrary detention and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians and fighters who laid down their arms,” Dutch prosecutors said.
Witnesses during the trial spoke of so-called “dark cells”, where political opponents of Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninist junta called the Derg were locked up for days in close confinement without trial or seeing daylight and faced constant torture.
Prosecutors said citizens were often forced to attend “exposure meetings” where opposition members were pressured to confess and finger others who opposed Mengistu’s regime.
“The accused played a leading role at these exposure meetings — without him these they would not have taken place,” judge Renckens agreed.
One witness, Worku Damena Yifru, testified how, as a 16-year-old prisoner, he saw a mass grave being dug inside a jail at the city of Debre Marcos in Gojjam.
He was later told that Alemu watched as his soldiers strangled some 80 prisoners, and then dumped their bodies in the grave.
“Alemu gave the order for ‘revolutionary measures’ to be taken against numerous victims,” Renckens said.
“The court is of the opinion that ‘revolutionary measures’ can only mean killing people,” the judge said.
Although there was not enough proof that Alemu was physically present at the time of the church murders, “his role as the command giver was so important that the deaths would not have taken place without his involvement,” the judge said.
– ‘No remorse’ –
Although he admitted being a member of the Derg, Alemu denied the charges.
Speaking at a hearing last month, Alemu said he would “apologise on my knees to all the victims and through them to all the people of Ethiopia.”
He refused to accept personal responsibility however, saying: “I do not recognise the role that has been assigned to me.”
Renckens said Alemu “failed to show any remorse and in actual fact still today” sees the political opposition as the guilty party.
Prosecutors and victims at the hearing hailed the verdict.
“We are exceptionally happy with today’s verdict… it’s been an emotional case,” Jirko Patist, spokesman for the Dutch public prosecutor’s office, told AFP.
“Today was a big day,” said Negus Temesgen, who survived being jailed as a teenager by the Derg.
“I do remember all those young people who had lost their lives in prison,” he said.
It is not yet known whether Alemu will appeal.