You’d be forgiven for not knowing that in 1992, Ethiopia’s transitional government established a Special Prosecutor’s Office to investigate and try members of the military junta it had toppled. Or that over the course of 14 years, the Red Terror trials (as they were known) led to the convictions of more than 1,000 individuals, including 55 high-level regime officials. Or that the Derg’s leader, Mengistu Hailemariam, was convicted on genocide charges in absentia and sentenced to death (on appeal) in 2008.
Despite the scale and scope of these trials, Ethiopia barely figures in the transitional justice literature. But it should. Not only is it a rare early (and African!) example of a fully domestic program of prosecutions for international crimes, it highlights many of the challenges of pursuing justice in a society gutted by decades of massive human rights violations and struggling to form functional institutions.
Here are some details:
The Derg seized power in the confusion following the 1974 overthrow of Ethiopia’s monarchy. They quickly launched a program of harsh reprisals against those associated with the imperial regime. Hundreds were arrested and 60 former officials were summarily executed without trial. The deposed Emperor himself was quietly murdered and buried under the floor of his former palace. But there was far worse to come.
In 1977, when the youth committees of the leftist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) organized a protest calling for civilian rule, the Derg cracked down. In the “May Day Massacre” and its immediate aftermath, over a thousand young people were gunned down; many of them left lying in the streets. The regime famously required family members collecting their corpses to pay for the bullets used to kill them.
The May Day Massacre was only the beginning—what one historian describes as “the dress rehearsal” for the bloodshed that followed. The Red Terror began as a systematic attempt to wipe out threats to the regime, and ended in chaos. The agents of the campaign were unfettered in their mandate to liquidate members of the EPRP and its leftist rival Ma’ison. Local-level revolutionary defense squads were given carte blanche to kill anyone suspected of anti-regime sentiments. No one was safe.
The Red Terror’s death toll is still uncertain. It’s clear that by 1980, tens of thousands were dead or disappeared, and countless others were imprisoned. Credible estimates go as high as half a million dead, and experts on the era speak of a “lost generation” of Ethiopians.
The Derg finally collapsed in 1991, overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The transitional government faced the challenge of reconstituting the Ethiopian state after decades of brutal authoritarian rule and internal conflict.
The decision to institute a program of mass prosecutions was not an obvious one in the early 1990s. The international criminal tribunals were not yet established, and relevant precedents from other domestic jurisdictions were few and far between. (Very few. Argentina, Greece, and Nicaragua had all tried past regime leaders on purely domestic charges, and Bangladesh had legislated, but never created, an International Crimes Tribunal.)
The choice of a criminal justice approach perhaps reflects the need Ethiopia’s new leaders felt to both signal a sharp break with the past and put the Derg firmly beyond the pale. Although the regime had committed massive and systematic atrocities, they were not the only actors guilty of human rights violations over the course of 17 years of competing and overlapping rebellions and counter-insurgencies. Widespread participation in violence and abuses had created resentments that could tear the new political order apart. One of the most urgent tasks was therefore to “establish a common and uniform interpretation of the Derg era, by fixing memory and institutionalizing a view of the past conflict“, a priority expressed in the limitation of the Special Prosecutor’s mandate to regime crimes.
Along with the sensitive political context, the Red Terror trials faced a number of difficulties that are common to transitional settings: the lack of resources to pursue trials in a speedy manner, the absence of a skilled judiciary following lustration of Derg officials, and the evidentiary challenges of investigating atrocities many years after the fact. Nevertheless, they ground on for nearly a decade and a half, with almost no attention or assistance from the international community. They’re overdue for a look.