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Ethiopia: Ruling In Col. Mengistu Case Is Postponed

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,   May 24, 2006 – An Ethiopian court today postponed a verdict in the 12-year genocide trial of former ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam until January, saying it needed more time to assess new defense evidence.

Former Marxist ruler Mengistu, who has lived a lavish but reclusive life in exile in Zimbabwe since being overthrown in 1991, has been tried in absentia along with his officials in Addis Ababa since 1994.

He is accused of killing tens of thousands of people during a 17-year rule that began with the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and included war, brutal purges and famine.

Col Mengistu Haile Mariam

In the so-called "Red Terror" campaign in 1977-78, suspected opponents were rounded up, executed by garroting (strangulation, breaking the neck) or shooting and their bodies thrown into the streets.

"The court had intended to pass a verdict against the accused during today’s session but because of the overwhelming new evidence presented by the defense, it became impossible to stick to the programme and pass judgment today", Presiding Judge Medhin Kiros said.

"Therefore the court has decided to adjourn the trial to January 23, 2007."

Judge Medhin said some of the evidence presented had not been translated into Ethiopia’s Amharic language beforehand, as it should have been.

"Some of the documents which were presented to the court as evidence were written in Chinese, German and English," Judge Medhin said, and ordered defense lawyers to translate the documents and present them to the court by July.

"We recognize that the trial has taken more time than it should. But we cannot ignore requests by defense lawyers who claim they may have new evidence which may help their case," he added.

While many Ethiopians hoped the verdict would draw a line under one of the darkest periods in their country’s turbulent history, some say the case has already dragged on for too long.

"I don’t care about today’s ruling. They can rot in jail for all I care," said one Ethiopian who declined to be named.

Colonel Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe after being overthrown by a guerrilla army led by Meles Zenawi, now prime minister.

About 40 members of Col Mengistu’s "Dergue" junta have also been tried in Addis Ababa. Around 20 more are being tried in absentia, while seven have died in prison.

One witness said those who were present today were chatting and laughing in court. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide, which Ethiopia defines as intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups.

Major Melaku Tefera, known as the "The Butcher of Gondar", was sentenced to death last year for genocide and abetting the murder of 971 people during the "Red Terror". One of Col Mengistu’s most feared aides, he was administrator of Gondar province.

The most prominent victim Mengistu is accused of killing was Haile Selassie, said to have been strangled in bed and secretly buried under a latrine in his palace. About 70 of the emperor’s senior officials were shot by firing squads and dumped in a mass grave.

In 1984, Col Mengistu denied for months that famine was ravaging the north of the country and aid workers said he flew in plane loads of whisky to celebrate the anniversary of his revolution. One million people died of starvation.

The prosecution has said the trial has been lengthy because the proceedings have been complex. It has presented evidence that has included signed execution orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimonies.

Source: Reuters, May 24, 2006


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