Ethiopian war criminals expected to leave Italian embassy after 29 years

Two officials have sentences commuted, ending what may be world’s longest diplomatic asylum saga

Two convicted Ethiopian war criminals who have been hiding inside an Italian embassy for nearly 30 years have had their sentences commuted, meaning they are likely to finally leave.

Their embassy stay is said to be the longest diplomatic asylum saga in history, lasting a full 22 years beyond WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s well-publicised seven years in London’s Ecuadorian embassy.

Addis Tedla and Berhanu Bayeh were senior officials in the communist Derg regime, which ruled Ethiopia from the 1970s, until they fled into the Italian embassy in Addis Ababa on the night of May 27th, 1991.

Two others were with them: Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, who had been acting head of state for a week before the regime's downfall; and Hailu Yimenu.


Hailu is believed to have taken his own life, while Tesfaye is said to have been mortally wounded in 2004 during a fight with Bayeh, the Derg's former foreign minister, who reportedly hit him over the head with a bottle.

Tedla is now in his 70s and Bayeh in his early 80s.

In 2015, the Italian embassy confirmed the surviving men were still inside, telling Vice News they had never been granted asylum and didn't seem to have a lawyer.

"I confirm that within the embassy compound there are two former senior Derg officials and that the Italian government cannot force them to go out from the compound [which, according to international customary law, is Italian territory] as long as they risk capital punishment. This obligation is enshrined in our legal system," said then-first secretary Giuliano Fragnito.

“Given the nature of the issue, we have always preferred not to grant interviews with journalists, rather we have privilege to have an open channel of communication with human rights institutions and NGOs.”

Red Terror

The Derg regime declared Ethiopia a Socialist People's Republic and took support from the Soviet Union. Between 1976-77, the regime consolidated its power during a period known as the Red Terror. As many as half a million people were killed, according to Amnesty International estimates.

The same leaders remained in control during Ethiopia’s 1983-85 drought and famine, when more than one million people are thought to have died.

The Derg regime was led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, an 83-year-old who still lives in exile in Zimbabwe, where he was initially granted sanctuary by former president Robert Mugabe. In 2007, Mengistu was found guilty of genocide in Ethiopia and sentenced to death in absentia, as were Tedla and Bayeh.

A director in the Addis Ababa federal court attorney general’s office confirmed both of the men in the embassy have had their sentences commuted, and they will be paroled.

“The punishment for the crime [of] genocide shall not be commuted by pardon or amnesty,” said Temesgen Lapiso. However, “given that the continued detention of these individuals for 30 years would not be conducive to the achievement of the cause of justice and the human rights situation of the individuals...they are release[d] on parole.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa