Ethiopia’s Derg: Guilty of GENOCIDE or POLITICIDE?
By Eskinder Nega / January 1, 2011
Remarkably small and frail for his famed ferocity, imprisoned Major
Melaku Tefera almost always stood in the proud poise of a solider half
his age, utterly expressionless -- the picture perfect stoic -- as he
listened attentively to multitude of witnesses’ account of his dreaded
years at the helm of Begemder and Simen, one of Ethiopia’s twelve
provinces in the '70s.
Hot-tempered and ambitious (but probably impeded by having graduated
at the bottom of his class -- 34th out of 38, according to a recent
book), Melaku was barely 25 years old when he stormed into the
near-anarchic regional capital, Gonder, as an administrator-extraordinaire
allotted with unlimited power.
by an urban youth that had almost rebelled against the state in its
virtual entirety, and a well-armed rural based opposition, EDU, an
outfit led by close relatives and senior officials of deposed
Haile-Selassie, inexperienced Melaku was supremely under-qualified to
be any regime’s point-man to stave off disaster in a critical
province. But stave off disinter was exactly what he went on to
do -- surprising both his friends and critics.
The price of success, unfortunately, entailed considerable human
toll (to little surprise). But much to the horror of the public,
Melaku, a native of the region, defended -- even relished -- the obvious
excesses. As painfully narrated by scores of witnesses in court,
Melaku, who ran a personal, vicious death-squad, insisted that the
bodies of his victims, many of them shot in the head from close range,
lay in the streets -- where some were eaten by stray dogs. In all, 971
persons, mostly teenagers, were executed by the orders of Melaku.
Thousands more were imprisoned and sadistically tortured.
When it was time to pass judgment, three judges who presided over the
hearings convicted him unanimously of “inhuman and extra-judicial
killings,” torture, and “barbaric cruelty.” They also found him
guilty of one more crime: genocide. The penalty: death, which is still
But have Melaku and the Derg regime as a whole really committed
genocide as their convictions assert?
A year after the assumption of state power by the EPRDF, in August
1992, a Special Prosecutors Office (SPO), the first of its kind in
Africa, was established and mandated with prosecutorial powers over
human rights abuses committed during the 17 years' reign of the Derg.
And with the stated intention to prosecute the entire leadership of
the regime for human rights abuses before a national court, a
precedent -- to much acclaim -- was set in Africa.
But “the precedent” was to be plagued by controversy and doubt from
the very beginning. For starters, Ethiopia was a nation chronically
deficient in prosecutors who specialized in criminal law. Worse, the
few that existed fell far short of international standards. The same
held true for potential defense lawyers -- particularly those related to
human rights issues. And to cap it all, potential judges were no more
prepared and adequate for the task that lay ahead. In other words, the
broad network of human resources that the mission required could
hardly be met by one of the least developed nations in the world.
There was no way that international standards could be met. This being
a foregone conclusion, the credibility of the outcome -- save those
related to the obvious excesses -- was marred from the very beginning.
Little surprise then, when it went on to take two years, between
August 1992 and October 1994, for the SPO to file its first charges.
And before it was ready to close shop, having prosecuted its last case
in 2006, 12 years and 2 months were to elapse -- a world record. This was
the longest trial in human history -- a record that will certainly
never be surpassed. In this delay of justice -- to which ill-prepared
prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers have each amply contributed
their share -- lies one of the most serious shortcomings (justice delayed
is justice denied, as the saying goes) of the “the precedent.”
Tragically, aside from the extreme delay, there was to be an even more
serious controversy. The SPO, no doubt prodded by the EPRDF, was not
content to charge the fallen regime merely with the uncontroversial
counts of “crimes against humanity” and “aggravated murder” ( which
would have sufficed for convictions and the maximum penalty), but
charged them, controversially, with additional counts of genocide.
Genocide is one of the world's most recognized and widely understood
words -- cutting across civilizations, languages and cultures. While
the legal and scholastic definition is still a work in progress, the
layman’s conception of genocide is astoundingly astute: wholesale
murder of a people due to their ethnic or racial identities. This is
surprisingly close to the most widely known explanation of genocide,
as articulated by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and
Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG):
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole
or in part,
as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or
mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the
group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical
destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent
births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the
group to another group.”
- a national,
- or religious group,
However, like all things UN, this definition was an outcome of a
compromise between Stalin-led Soviet Union and the West in 1948, when
the UN was established. While the West pushed for the inclusion of
political groups in the genocide clause, the Soviets, with the legacy
of the Red Terror in their immediate past, resisted, and finally had
their way when it was excluded. To many, the UN convention has been
lacking ever since. And many countries, including Ethiopia, went on to
incorporate political groups in their national genocide laws.
But what is the standard for genocide when the political group “is
destroyed (only) in part,” as was the case for the EPRP in Ethiopia?
The international precedent, as set in the Yugoslavia trials, stresses
that “the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact
on the (number of the) group as a whole.” A substantial portion of the
group must physically perish to meet the strict criteria of genocide.
(Some advocate broader criteria.) And gauged from this strict
standard, no political group in Ethiopia, even the EPRP, the Derg’s
worst victim, has lost a substantial portion (say,1/4th ) of its
membership to extra-judicial executions. In fact, the vast majority of
the imprisoned were not executed. The case of the head of SPO itself,
Girma Wakjera, once a member of the EPRP, who was imprisoned (and
tortured) but later released, illustrates the absence of intent to
destroy all or a substantial portion of the oppositions’ members.
Ironically, some of the judges who presided over the trials had
similar stories to that of Girma Wakjera, but still went on to convict
them of genocide.
So, if genocide is to be ruled out, how then are we to describe the
thousands of extra-judicial killings of the Derg?
Barbara Harff and Ted Gurr, two prominent genocide scholars, have
coined the term “politicide” to describe the widespread
extra-judicial killings “when the victims are defined primarily in
their hierarchical position (in an organization) or political
opposition to a regime.” And which is exactly what best broadly
describes the Derg’s victims -- particularly during the Red Terror,
for which its officials have been mostly convicted of genocide and
sentenced to death.
Derg officials have been sentenced to death for the wrong reasons.
Whatever the courts have said, they are not guilty of genocide. And as
we consider their plea for forgiveness as a nation, we must
unavoidably take this overriding issue into consideration.
(Last part of this article: next week)