Justice must be done

2008-05-28 00:00

On Monday Ethiopia’s supreme court sentenced former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam to death, acknowledging the validity of the prosecution’s argument that the life sentence he was given for genocide was inadequate punishment for his crimes.

Mengistu has been living in exile in Zimbabwe since 1991, and is unlikely to face punishment under the present political status quo. He is likely, however, to be extradited if President Robert Mugabe loses next month’s run-off election and cedes power to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who said two years ago that the MDC would withdraw the protection given Mengistu by Mugabe’s government.

Mengistu and his cohorts overthrew and killed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and during his 17-year rule he was directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of 2 000 people (hence the genocide conviction) and for the torture of some 2 400 more. He now joins the growing band of former leaders and officials to whom — even though it’s taken a long time —justice is being meted out. The International Criminal Court (ICC) may have been criticised for its mills-of-God tardiness, but it gets there in the end. Also being brought to justice 30 years on are lieutenants of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, and individuals who committed crimes against humanity in Argentina. Crimes of more recent date (2003 to 2006) are attributed to Jean-Pierre Bemba, formerly vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrested on a war crimes warrant from the ICC in Brussels at the weekend.

Despite the overall slowness of international justice, these examples of it must, surely, hearten those still suffering under cruelly repressive regimes. Thus, Zimbabweans may compare the genocidal acts of Mengistu with those of their own president, and recall that in their brutal forays into Matabeleland alone his agents killed and maimed more people than did Mengistu’s in the whole of his reign. Once an oppressor is out of office, whether in cushy exile elsewhere or in well-heeled obscurity at home, those affected and afflicted by his rule need not passively wait and hope for justice to be done, but can be proactive, invoking the law, laying charges and becoming part of the process that will eventually lead to examination of the case by the ICC.

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