Under an outmoded banner, a court is to hear a catalogue of Mengistu's "Red Terror" atrocities

 

ALLEGED perpetrators of the "Red Terror" campaign that took place in Ethiopia in 1977-8 will appear in court tomorrow, following recent charges, made by the Special Prosecutor's Office against 5,198 people, more than half of them indicted in absentia, Alice Martin reports from Addis Ababa.

The first of these trials opened in December 1994 following charges against 71 members of the former military junta known as the Dergue, but accounts of witnesses only began to be heard in April 1996. Long delays have meant that hundreds of prisoners have been held for more than five years before being charged. Now they will start appearing in court.

But tile Special Prosecutor, Mr Girma Wakjira, says his office's performance is a "conspicuous achievement"

During court hearings that take place twice weekly more than 180 prosecution witnesses have so far testified in horrendous detail to a system of mass murder instituted by the Dergue and led by the former dictator, Col Mengistu, who now lives in exile in Zimbabwe. Only 46 of the 71 surviving members currently on trial are actually in court.

The trial takes place in a circular pannelled room built by the communists and featuring a hammer and sickle and the logo "We will subdue not only reactionaries, but nature itself".

In the courtroom three generations of Ethiopians sit together beneath hot lights listening to the tremulous descriptions of victims' relatives. They tell of attempts to trace their loved ones and take them provisions in prison during long years of oppression.

One witness described how 16 inmates heard of their "completed executions" on a radio broadcast in prison 15 minutes before they were actually taken away to be killed. "We knew when we dined at 5 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. that there were going to be deaths that night," said another witness.

Torture methods were many and varied. Those of certain ethnic groups, especially Tigrayans, or those linked to opposition groupings, were killed, fuelling support for rebels that fought the Mengistu regime for 17 years and eventually won. Now they are in power judging those they conquered.

Defendants are classified in three major groups policy or decision makers; field commanders; and perpetrators of crimes. The majority are men, charged with aggravated homicide, war crimes and genocide.

Perhaps it is the very laboriousness of the trials themselves, estimated to take several years that will serve some purpose. As one observer noted, it helps Ethiopians to "draw the sting of the past".