By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia said on Wednesday it had commuted the death sentences of 23 of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s henchmen convicted of genocide in 2008, reducing the penalties to life imprisonment after an appeal.
Mengistu and dozens of others were sentenced to death for the murder of thousands during a 17-year rule that included famine, war and the “Red Terror” purges of suspected opponents.
The ex-president and his senior officers were convicted after a 12-year trial that ruled Mengistu’s government was directly responsible for the deaths of 2,000 people and the torture of at least 2,400.
Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis announced the act of clemency on Wednesday following an appeal for leniency by a panel of heads of religious institutions, as well as an expression of remorse by those convicted.
“The president has decided to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. It was done in accordance with the constitution,” government spokesman Shimelis Kemal told Reuters.
“The process was not retributive, it was meant to ensure fairness and justice. Many of them have served lengthy prison terms and have asked the government for a commutation of the death sentence,” he said.
The group does not include Mengistu but comprises several high-profile figures from the Mengistu-era such as Legesse Asfaw, known as “the butcher of Tigre”, former vice-president Fisseha Desta and former prime minister Fikresellassie Wogderes.
They have been behind bars since 1991 and have publicly apologised for their crimes.
Mengistu, who has lived a life of comfortable exile in Zimbabwe since he was driven from power in 1991, is unlikely to face any punishment as President Robert Mugabe has refused to allow his extradition. Mugabe considers the 73-year-old a friend of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.
The call for leniency by the religious leaders had caused serious debate in the Horn of Africa nation two decades after Mengistu’s regime was toppled following a 17-year guerrilla war.
Shimelis said the process guaranteed the maintenance of the rule of law in Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia has come to terms with its past,” he said.
Mengistu seized power in 1974 after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, and quickly clawed his way to the top in the military junta known as the Derg.
His regime’s brutality was exemplified by the Red Terror purges of 1977-78, in which at least 1,200 suspected political opponents were murdered and their bodies dumped in the streets as a warning to others.
Mengistu was among 25 defendants tried in absentia in 2008. Of the 73 accused, 14 had died and only 33 were present in court.