In a dramatic confrontation with survivors in a Dutch courtroom, 63-year-old Eshetu Alemu accepted blame for the crimes of the Marxist rulers known as the Dergue nearly 40 years ago but insisted he did not carry out the crimes for which Dutch prosecutors hold him responsible.
“I would apologize on my knees to these victims and, through them, to all of Ethiopia,” Alemu said.
But, addressing allegations that he was responsible for the torture and murder of political prisoners in the western province of Gojam in 1978, he told judges: “I was not there.”
His emotional comments came in response to statements by survivors of his alleged crimes and people who lost family members.
One survivor, Worku Damena Yifru, citing witnesses, told judges that Alemu personally ordered the summary execution of dozens of prisoners in a church inside the prison compound in August 1978 and told other prisoners to dump their bodies in a mass grave.
He said Alemu checked the names of inmates summoned to the church before “special forces knocked down the prisoners and killed them by strangulation.”
Yifru said that as a survivor, “I feel I have a solemn duty to seek justice on behalf of all victims of that wanton, inhuman killing ordered by Mr. Alemu.”
Alemu, a longtime resident and citizen of the Netherlands, is charged with war crimes including involvement in torturing prisoners to death under the 1974-1991 Dergue regime. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
He admitted being a member of the Dergue, the group led by former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has lived in exile in Zimbabwe since being driven from power. Mengistu was convicted in absentia in 2006 of genocide and later sentenced to death.
Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu’s regime, though no one knows for sure how many suspected opponents were killed. Human Rights Watch has described the 1977-78 Red Terror campaign as “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.”