Etiopia: War crimes tribunal violated human rights

The Ethiopian legal system has accused several thousands of brutal war crimes. Now the war crimes tribunal has itself violated fundamental human rights.

LACK OF PUBLIC SECURITY: Kjetil Tronvoll calls attention to several serious flaws in regard to the Ethiopian trial against the war criminals of the brutal Derg Regime. Photo: Ola Sæther

Ethiopia's trial against the criminals of war from the harsh Derg regime (1974-1991) undermines human rights, says Associate Professor Kjetil Tronvoll at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights at the University of Oslo.

He has studied the political development in Ethiopia since 1990 and has attended the elections as a researcher and election monitor both in Ethiopia and Eritrea. His book on the trial, which is a result of collaborative work between anthropologists, legal practitioners, historians and political scientists from Ethiopia, Norway and USA, is to be published at the publishing houses James Currey (Oxford) and the Ohio University Press (Athens).

Red Terror

After the revolution against Emperor Haile-Selassie in 1974, the Mengistu Hailemariams military junta took power. The regime supported by Moscow withheld power until 1991.

Even thought the regime and opposition maintained Marxism, they're interpretations differed. Severe punishment of those in opposition to the military junta was executed. The purifications at the end of the seventies, known as Red Terror, were similar to the Moscow processes in the 1930s. Approximately 55 000 political intellectuals were liquidated. The victims consisted mainly of urban, young students.

– The method of torture was dreadful. The goal was to spread public fear. Eye witnesses tell that the victims were cooked in oil and their nails were pulled out. Mothers were raped in front of their children. Pieces of clothing soaked in urine and covered with other excrements were stuffed in the victims' mouths. The torturers used a pair of pincers to break noses. Then they would slit the victims' throats or strangle them slowly, says Kjetil Tronvoll to the research magazine Apollon.

Many were shot at night. The regime attached tags which read «contra-revolutionary» on the bodies. Relatives were only permitted to fetch the bodies if they paid for the bullets used to kill them.

The political party EPRP was acknowledged as the main enemy, but they also had blood stained hands and killed thousands of people, among these several mayors and governors. All in all almost 200 000 people were killed during the seventies and eighties due to the conflicts in the multi-ethnic society where «everyone was at war with each other».

– One could say that it was legitimate of the state to defend itself against «illegal opposition», but the defence method they used got out of hand.

The Trial

Contrary to South Africa, which chose a commission of truth and national reconciliation, Ethiopia leans on the penal settlement.

Several thousands were interned when EPRDF came to power in 1991. Not everyone had connections with Red Terror. The government also used the situation to cleanse out political enemies and dissidents within their own party and kept them interned for years.

2258 people were accused of war crimes. The accused can be divided into three groups.

Group one: Colonel Mengistu and the political and military leadership, all in all 55 men.

Group two: 200 people from the military interlayer who channelled the orders to kill and burn down villages.

Group three: The last group consisted of approximately 2000 men who were enlisted foot soldiers accused of torture and murder.

Many of the executions during the Red Terror were carried out on written order. These documents were used as evidence in the trial.


The trial began in 1995 and lasted for 13 years. The sentence in regard to the top leaders was passed in December 2007. This sentence has been appealed. The appeal case can take time.

– The most important criticism in regard to human rights is the length of the case process. The custodians had to wait for 16 years. Some of these were given shorter sentences than the time they had spent in custody. Some were released due to lack of evidence.

– The defence was denied access to the evidence material before the prosecutor presented the material in court. Some counsels for the defence were denied meeting their client in court. The process has undermined public security.

The judges were biased

EPRDF replaced most of the judges from the Megistu Regime with their own. Many believe the replacement was based on ethnic issues.

– The new judges were loyal to the party, lacked juridical competence and education. The sentences of the leadership were based on the paragraph on genocide. International legal practitioners are sceptical to the use of this paragraph.

– The murders were ideological and not ethnically motivated. It is therefore difficult to define this as genocide.

The problem with a trial that has lasted for 13 years is that many judges have been replaced during the process. The person who is to pass the sentence has therefore not heard the first submission of evidence.

The trial took long time due to an ineffective administration and lack of resources such as too few secretaries and copying machines. The trial was too thorough and the submission of evidence was too extensive.

– Instead of 100 witnesses and 10 000 pages of documents, it would have been more than enough with five witnesses and 100 pages to pass a sentence.

That the court only met every second week did not improve the situation either.

Loss of legitimacy

A few death sentences were passed, but the real bad guy Mengistu and his generals were not sentenced to death. This was most likely a political decision to get Mengistu extradited from Zimbabwe.

– The court process started to educate the Ethiopian public about the political divide after the fall of Mengistu. The process became the main cause of the new regime. They signalized that they took human rights seriously.

When the government met an increasing political opposition after 1995, the regime itself became the perpetrator.

– Today, Ethiopia has thousands of political prisoners, the regime is not democratic or based on human rights. That in itself demeans the legitimacy of the court process.

As an example of this three generals from Red Terror are mentioned. They were pardoned of having partaken in the war against Eritrea in 1998-2000. Friends became enemies and vice versa. Soldiers of the Derg Army were asked to enlist the new Eritrea war.

 This in itself indicates that the court process has a political lopsidedness.

The government has not pardoned those who have been interned for a longer time than their sentence would entail.

Uncertain future

Tronvoll fears the judicial authority in Ethiopia.

– The legal system has not been consolidated and does not have sufficient capacity. They have a long way to go. The danger of new politicians yet again replacing the judges with their own loyal party fellows, is most definitely present, says Kjetil Tronvoll at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights.

By Yngve Vogt, Translated by Kathrine Torday Gulden
Published Feb. 1, 2012 11:49 AM - Last modified Feb. 1, 2012 1:12 PM