The many victims of the brutal communist military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, known as the Derg, had a rare victory this week. On December 15, former Ethiopian government official Eshetu Alemu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison by a Dutch court for his role in ordering the executions of 75 people, including children under 18, in the 1970s.
Over 150,000 students, academics, and political opponents were killed during the Derg’s “Red Terror” campaign. Countless others were disappeared, arrested, or tortured. Senior Derg officials, including Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam, were convicted of genocide in absentia in 2006 after a 12-year trial in Ethiopia’s courts. They were sentenced to life in prison. Eshetu, the Derg’s senior representative in Gojam province at the time of his crimes, had been sentenced to death in absentia by an earlier Ethiopian court. In 1991 when the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) overthrew the dictatorship, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe where he was afforded protection by then-president Robert Mugabe. Eshetu fled to the Netherlands.
Eshetu’s conviction should send a powerful message that officials can and will be held to account for atrocities, and that the passage of time is no guarantee of impunity. This message is especially important in Ethiopia, where the TPLF, who has been in power since the Derg’s overthrow, has also committed serious abuses with impunity. These include its military’s murder, rape, and torture of Anuak civilians in Gambella in 2003 and 2004, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Somali Region in 2007. Additionally, a brutal crackdown by government security forces against protesters beginning in 2015 left over a thousand dead. The government has not permitted independent investigations into any of these events and Ethiopia has strongly resisted calls for an international investigation. Justice and accountability for Ethiopia’s many victims in the last 50 years, has been all too rare.
For families of Ethiopia’s many victims of torture, killings, and other serious abuses, Eshetu’s conviction should give them hope that those responsible will one day be held to account.