Dutch court to open Ethiopia 'Red Terror' war crimes trial

The Hague - A Dutch-Ethiopian national goes on trial in The Hague on Monday accused of war crimes, including ordering the deaths of 75 prisoners, during bloody purges in Ethiopia known as the "Red Terror".

In the rare case before a Dutch court, the 63-year-old is alleged by prosecutors to have been a henchman for Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in northwestern Gojjam province in the 1970s.

The hearings in The Hague involve "a grim series of events involving the incarceration, torture and murder of opponents of the 1970s revolutionary regime in Ethiopia," the prosecution service said in a statement.

Identified in Dutch media as Eshetu Alemu, the defendant is a long-time resident of The Netherlands and has acquired Dutch citizenship.

A total of 321 victims have been named in four war crimes charges which include the "arbitrary detention and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians and fighters who had laid down their arms," prosecutors added in a statement.

'Acts of torture'

Witnesses have come forward to detail "acts of torture" which included "beatings and kicking and involved victims being tied up and suspended in mid-air while they were beaten with sticks on their faces and against their bare feet".

"In August 1978, the suspect allegedly ordered the killing of 75 young prisoners" in a church, the prosecution said, adding the bodies were then dumped in a mass grave.

In the fourth charge, Alemu is accused of "the incarceration and inhumane treatment of 240 people" sentenced to prison without trial.

"Several witnesses have testified that they were locked up in small rooms with too many people where there was hardly any daylight. There were no or insufficient sanitary facilities, unclean food and drinking water and lack of medical care," the prosecution said.

Bloody repression 

Mengistu ruled Ethiopia from 1977 with an iron fist following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The strongman was then himself ousted in 1991 after a series of revolts by insurgent groups.

"Under the Mengistu-regime, Ethiopia lived through a bloody period of repression and strife at the cost of thousands of lives," the Dutch prosecutors said, referring to a period which became known as the 'Red Terror'.

Alemu was "sentenced to death in absentia in Ethiopia for the murder of suspected opponents of the regime," prosecutors said.

But since the Ethiopian judgement cannot be carried out here, "a trial in The Netherlands is the best option to call the man to account before a court of law".

The man has already been in custody for two years awaiting his trial, set to be addressed by several victims who now live in exile. The trial is due to last around three weeks.

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