A nation uses courts to right a dictator's wrongs


ELAKU TAFARA, his crutch leaning against a wall, explains his more-than-passing interest in the trials of former Ethiopian officials now getting under way.

``I was a victim; I was tortured,'' he says.

In May 1977, Mr. Melaku, then a high school student active in the opposition to former President Mengistu Haile-Mariam, was arrested by a group of masked government security officials. ``They beat me for three days,'' he says. Today, his right leg is barely useable.

Then he was taken to the former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie I, where interrogation continued, but this time by unmasked security officials.

``I'd seen some [of them] on the streets,'' says Mr. Melaku. Now he has seen them in custody since President Mengistu was overthrown three years ago. He has identified several of his torturers. One of the men who allegedly tortured Melaku's father to death is among those going on trial.

Chance for justice

For Melaku to have his day in court is a remarkable step for Ethiopia, where rulers coming to power traditionally killed their rivals, not bothering with trials and legal processes.

Ethiopia, says Andreas Eshete, a professor of philosophy at the University of Addis Ababa, has never had a ``legal transition'' from one regime to another.

But the country's current head of state, Pres. Meles Zenawi, who is trying to legitimize his transitional government in the eyes of Ethiopians and the international community, is determined to make a break with the past.

The trials are likely to eventually include more than 1,300 officials of the previous regime. They cover alleged crimes against humanity during a part of the 30-year civil war in Ethiopia, which ended in 1991 with Mengistu fleeing the country.

Many, including Mengistu himself, who now lives in exile in Zimbabwe, will be tried in absentia.

Among the acts that ex-officials will be charged with are summary executions, massive aerial bombings of civilian populations, and systematic torture.

The first 45 prisoners were scheduled to go on trial Dec. 13. They are charged with executing 60 senior officials of the government of Emperor Selassie in 1974, apparently on the initiative of Mengistu.

Even current President Meles said in an interview here that he could easily have ordered the killing of many Mengistu officials captured by his forces when they won the war in mid-1991. ``We could have killed everyone in the last few days,'' he said.

But Meles says he wants a new standard for Ethiopia. The trials send a message to any future Ethiopian government, said Meles. ``If you mess around with our peoples' lives, it may take time, but you'll pay.''

Ethiopia's Office of the Special Prosecutor (SPO), has collected some 300,000 documents to be used in the trials.

The Mengistu regime, apparently sure of its long tenure in power, meticulously documented the imprisonment, torture, and execution of victims, according to SPO officials.

The documents were located in various ministries and were not destroyed as rebel forces swept into the city in 1991.

Prosecutors here say the documentation provides one of the best records of atrocities since the seizure of documents in which Nazis recorded their treatment of Jews in concentration camps.

During the ``Red Terror'' campaign by Mengistu in the mid-1970s against his opponents, including university students, ``dead bodies were lying on the streets'' of Addis Ababa - victims of the government, says Abraham Tsegay, one of the prosecutors in the trials and a spokesman for the SPO.

Torture of victims included beatings on the soles of feet, hanging victims upside down for extended periods and beating them, and burning with hot irons, says Mr. Abraham.

Crimes against humanity

As an example of alleged atrocities, Abraham says that in the village of Hawzen, some 2,500 civilians were killed in June 1988 by Soviet-made helicopter gunships and MIG fighter planes during a six-hour strafing.

``It was a market day,'' he says. The government calls this a crime against humanity since there was no apparent military target.

Prosecutors in the trials are seeking the death penalty in many cases. When Melaku, who will attend the trials, is asked what penalty he wants for those convicted, he says, simply, ``I want to see justice served.''

Then he laughs, moving his hands aimlessly around, and sighs. ``I wish for them life imprisonment, so families of victims could visit them, like in a museum, like a zoo. I hope people draw lessons from them. We don't want these things to happen again.''

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