Final conviction for war crimes committed in Ethiopia during the Red Terror (1977-1978)
Type of jurisdiction
Universal jurisdiction and active personality
Eshetu Alemu, Dutch national originally from Ethiopia, former member of the Provisional Military Administrative Council, also known as the Dergue, during the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime
Country of residence of suspect
War crimes including arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment, torture and murder of alleged opponents to the regime
Convicted; sentenced to life in prison; appeal rejected
In 1974, the communist military regime, known as the Dergue, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie I and seized power in Ethiopia. The regime effectively ruled the country for the next 17 years. In February 1977, the Red Terror was officially declared, which led to mass killings, arrests, torture and enforced disappearances against suspected political opponents. Human Rights Watch in its 2017 report stated that the incident was one of the most prominent systematic mass executions by a state ever witnessed in Africa and reported that over 150’000 students, academics and political opponents were killed during the period.
As a former member of the Provisional Military Administrative Council, Alemu was convicted for ordering the execution of 75 people, torturing nine people and controlling the illegal detention of more than 300 people in cruel and inhuman conditions in the Gojjam province during the Red Terror.
In 1990, Alemu fled to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker and acquired Dutch citizenship in 1998.
Procedure in Ethiopia
On 12 December 2006, Ethiopia concluded the trial of former Dergue officials, convicting Alemu, and 57 other regime officials, for genocide and crimes against humanity. Alemu was tried in absentia and received a death sentence.
Procedure in the Netherlands
Alemu was arrested in the Netherlands in September 2015. In September 2016, 15 Ethiopian witnesses residing in the United States and Canada were questioned by a Dutch judge and a prosecutor. Alemu pleaded not guilty to all charges.
On 15 December 2017, The Hague District Court found Alemu guilty of the war crimes of arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment, torture and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Alemu appealed his conviction on 3 January 2018. On 23 April 2018, a first pre-trial hearing took place before The Hague Court of Appeal. At the defense’s request, on 19 November 2018, the Court agreed to hear a dozen witnesses in Ethiopia. An investigative judge traveled to Ethiopia, together with the defense counsel and prosecutors, to hear the witnesses.
DEVELOPMENTS IN 2022
On 8 June 2022, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld Alemu’s conviction for the war crimes of arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment, torture and murder, and sentence of life-imprisonment. The Court also ordered compensatory damages for the victims.