Ethiopia: Keeping up with the forgotten “guests”

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 23rd, 2013
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By Hindessa Abdul
As the new Ethiopian year 2006 dawned, the president of the country – weeks before his final days in office – pardoned about 400 prisoners. Hopes of the release of journalists and activists who could use his gestures evaporated in to thin air when family members told the media that their loved ones will not be joining them for the new year. It was not only the journalists’ request for pardon that was left unanswered, there were some two other “guests” who were mentioned as a footnote in the clemency story. They were told to surrender before requesting forgiveness.

The two former Dergue officials who are believed to be in their 70s caged in the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa have long been forgotten by local and international community. For those who care to check: Addis Tedla and Berhanu Bayeh might have broken the world record for staying longer than anybody else in an embassy compound: 22 years and counting.

You are not alone

The idea of seeking protection in diplomatic missions is not new. Many politicians and even ordinary people have tried to use embassies to evade threats to their life.

In 1989 the Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega picked a fight with his mighty former sponsors. When the U.S. invaded his country to arrest him, Noriega fled to the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.He only lasted ten days before surrendering.

When the Berlin Wall was torn down and the days of reckoning set in, the East Germany leader Erich Honecker flew to Moscow to seek refuge in the Chilean embassy there. He spent about three months before being handed over to German authorities to have his days in court.

The whistle blower website WikiLeaks founder, who is hold up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is a present day example. The Australian born Julian Assange sought for extradition to Sweden on sexual misconduct charges has been sheltered in the embassy for over a year now.

The Four Tops

Nothing is known about what a typical day looks like for the former Ethiopian officials who are sheltered in the Italian embassy in the Ethiopian capital. Italians rarely divulge information about their ‘‘guests.” If and when they have something to say, it usually culminates in recrimination with the Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry who accuses Italy of ‘harbouring criminals.’

Ethiopia and Italy had sometimes tense relationships. For long time the return of the Axum obelisk was a bone of contention between the two countries. That problem has since been resolved with the return of the monument. Ethiopia has also been accusing Italy of sympathizing with Eritrea when war broke out between the neighboring countries in 1998. And of course the case of the four “guests”, who short of being flown out of the country managed to secure a save haven, have also been a source of tension.

The Italians have refused to hand over the suspects citing the use of death penalty in the country that contravenes the Italian law which has long abolished capital punishment. Italy so far has stood firm on its principles by keeping the suspects in its embassy with all the ensuing burden.

While no solution to the impasse insight, the possibility of a safe transit out of the country is faint. The fate of their two colleagues only makes for the worst case scenario. From the original four, half have left the compound – deceased. The officials who entered the embassy in the last days of May 1991are:

Lieutenant General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan – long time Minister of Defense in the Dergue administration; he was the country’s President just for a week. Amid the chaos created by a fleeing leader and a deserting army, the General’s last resort was the Italian embassy where he spent the rest of his life until he was reported to have been killed in a brawl with his fellow fugitive Berhanu Bayeh in June 2004.

Hailu Yemenu – was deputy then acting Prime Minister of the country in the last days of the Marxist regime. Unlike the other three, he was not member of the Dergue. Hailu Yemenu was a technocrat who served in various ministerial positions including minister of industry and vice minister of mines. He is said to have committed suicide days after entering the embassy.

Lieutenant General Addis Tedla – was the army Chief of Staff. He was known to be a soft spoken Dergue member. Some members of his family living in the U.S. were said to have been allowed to pay him a visit.

Berhanu Bayeh – a well educated Dergue member, he served as minister to various offices and he rose to the rank of Minister of Foreign Affaires when his predecessor Goshu Woldie defected to the U.S in the mid 1980s.

While in the compound, two of them have been convicted in absentia; one died while the trial was in progress. Technically speaking, Hailu Yemenu was not even charged as the Special Prosecutor’s Office set up to deal with crimes committed “under the Dergue – WPE regime” was not even established.

Friends in high places

What is surprising is those who were tried and sentenced to life in prison were able to get their freedom through a clemency granted in October 2011. Save for the news of the challenges some of them faced finding a roof over their heads, as landlords were reluctant to rent them a house, the former officials have largely sank into oblivion.

As to the Red Negus himself, with the recent reelection of the 89 year-old Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe for another five-year term his fear of extradition has gone for now. While nobody expects the octogenarian to live for eternity – at least on the planet earth – Mengistu’s nightmares could still be a reality.

It is hard to conclude whether the incarceration of the former officials helped heal the wounds inflicted in those turbulent days of the late 70s when killing was almost the only solution to win a revolution. But some perpetrators paid their due in one or the other way. Guilty or not, the mere fact of living in state of limbo for over two decades is a predicament no human being should be subjected to.

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