Friday, December 08, 2006

Mengistu case drawing to a close

The former dictator of Ethiopia is finally facing judgment - albeit in absentia - by his countrymen. After a case lasting a decade, a court in Addis Ababa will render a verdict this week on whether or not the former Marxist military strongman is guilty of crimes against humanity and will likely face the gallows (as most of his co-defendants have) for his crimes.

Mengistu Hailie Mariam rose to power after his rebel army (known as The Derg) overthrew, and eventually murdered, the reigning monarch Emperor Hailie Selassie I. After consolidating power in the middle of 1977, Mengistu ordered his soldiers to use the power of the state to start a red terror that ultimately claimed the lives of countless innocent Ethiopians, and naturally, a massive purge to eliminate any intra-party political rivals. After securing military and financial aid from the Soviet Union in the 1980's, Mengistu took the offensive at rival communist groups and secessionist regions alike.

A high profile drought and famine pricked the conscience of the west, but Mengistu regarded this as an inconvenience, as most of the suffering were in regions where his armies were fighting anti-government insurgents. After some consideration, Mengistu graciously accepted the donated food and money, and promptly sent the bulk of it to his military. The Soviets also graciously looked the other way, and did not make any politically embarrassing demands to do anything about the famine in their client state.

By 1991, however, Mengistu was finished. The Soviet Union collapsed, and without military aid, the rebels gained the upper hand. Desperate to flee Ethiopia, Mengistu was granted political asylum by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as an honored guest of the government, where he remains to this day. As might be expected, Ethiopia is seeking his extradition from Zimbabwe rather urgently, but as long as Mugabe is alive, he won't hand over a fellow dictator to face justice at the hands of his aggrieved people. It might set a bad precedent if and when he's removed from power himself.

When the court's verdict is passed, the accused will be thousands of miles away living in relative luxury. Mengistu should not get too comfortable, however. Robert Mugabe is his only protection from extradition, and when Mugabe (who turns 83 in February) either dies or is overthrown, he will likely find himself in shackles on the first flight back to the Ethiopia. If I were him, I might start into whether or not Kim Jong-Il wants anyone to keep him company.

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