By LES NEUHAUS
The Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 10:18 AM
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was sentenced to life imprisonment Thursday, ending his 12-year trial in absentia for genocide and other crimes committed during his iron-fisted rule.
Mengistu, known as "the butcher of Addis Ababa," is unlikely to ever spend a day behind bars. He lives comfortably in exile in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has said he won't deport Mengistu if he refrains from political activity.
Mengistu ruled from 1974 to 1991 after his military junta ended Emperor Haile Selassie's reign in a bloody coup. Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu's Marxist regime, though no one knows for sure.
He was found guilty Dec. 12 along with 58 others, including Fikre Selassie Wogderesse, the former prime minister, and Fissiha Desta, the former vice president. Both also received life sentences.
Nine other top officials were sentenced to life while 47 other aides received sentences up to 25 years, lead judge Medhin Kiros said. Some 33 were in court Thursday while 26 were tried in absentia and 29 have died since the case began.
The convicted officials showed no emotion as the sentences were announced in court in the capital of Addis Ababa.
Relatives of victims of Mengistu's rule immediately criticized the verdict.
"This is a victory for Mengistu," said Mulugeta Aserate, a cousin of the emperor. "These people should have been sentenced to death for mass murder of Ethiopian citizens."
Kiros told the packed courtroom he wanted the death penalty because of the nature of the crimes, but the two other judges wanted a lesser sentence.
Chief prosecutor Yosef Kiros said immediately after sentencing that they may appeal because they want Mengistu to face the death penalty.
The trial, a rare case of an African strongman being held to account by his own country, focused on Mengistu's alleged involvement in the killing of nearly 2,000 people during a 1977-78 campaign known as the Red Terror. Mengistu's charge sheet and evidence list was 8,000 pages long.
Human Rights Watch has described the Red Terror as "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa."
The case has been closely watched in Africa, where dictators have been known to harbor colleagues from other countries and to stymie attempts elsewhere to bring despots to justice.
It was seen as a watershed when, in March, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was brought before a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone on charges of backing Sierra Leonean rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off body parts during the 1991-2002 civil war.
"Our concern now is that Mengistu actually be brought to justice," Reed Brody, legal counsel for the Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday. "One dictator is protecting another."
Former aides of Mengistu, now living in exile in the U.S., told the AP that the former Marxist junta is refusing to comment on the case.
Critics say the trial has gone on for too long to serve justice and that it is politically motivated. Mengistu was ousted in 1991 by rebels led by Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia's prime minister.
The trial, which began in 1994, has been complicated by requests from both sides for long breaks. Hundreds of key witnesses have also died, making it difficult for prosecutors and defense lawyers to present their cases.
Ethiopia's notoriously inefficient courts have convicted more than 1,000 people since 1994 for participating in the Red Terror, but more than 5,000 await trial and more than 3,000 of those, including Mengistu, live in exile.