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.

Confronted 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 pending.

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,
  1. a national,
  2. ethnic,
  3. racial
  4. or religious group,
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.”

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)
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