The Mengistu Genocide Trial in Ethiopia
16 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2008 Last revised: 14 Oct 2015
Date Written: May 1, 2007
This article analyses the sentencing judgment issued on 11 January 2007 by the Ethiopian Federal High Court in the case of Mengistu Hailemariam and his co-accused who had been tried, among others, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. This was the first African trial where an entire regime was brought to justice before a national court for atrocities committed while in power. Twenty-five of the 55 accused found guilty, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia (Mengistu remains in exile in Zimbabwe). The trial took 12 years, making it one of the longest ever trials for genocide. In December 2006, Mengistu was convicted by majority vote of genocide and crimes against humanity pursuant to Article 281 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code, which includes political groups among the groups protected against genocide. A dissenting judge took the position that the accused should have been convicted of aggravated homicide because the relevant part of the provision had been repealed. A few weeks later, the Court, by majority, sentenced the top tier of the accused to life imprisonment, taking into account certain extenuating circumstances. If not for these, the death penalty would have been imposed. In addition to ensuring some accountability, the judgment is important for providing an official and detailed account of what happened in those years in Ethiopia under Mengistu's reign. Given that in Ethiopia there are no official gazettes where court judgments are published, it is unlikely that the public will be able to read the judgment and thus become aware of what had happened. In addition to analysing the reasoning of the court, this article also looks into the prevailing political circumstances in the country and reflects upon the trial and the reception that this important decision has had, and will receive, in the wider community.
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