The Hague, NETHERLANDS | AFP | 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,” the judge said.
Alemu 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 courtroom, shouting “Finally justice has been done, thank you!”
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,” 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.
One witness, Worku Damena Yifru testified how, as a 16-year-old prisoner, he saw a mass grave being dug inside a prison at the city of Debre Marcos in Gojjam.
He was later told that Eshetu 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, adding this was confirmed by his signature on documents dating from the time.
Although he admitted being a member of the Derg, Alemu denied the charges, calling the case a “nightmare.”