Dutch judges jailed a onetime aide to Ethiopia’s former communist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam for life on Friday for war crimes carried out during Ethiopia’s “Red Terror” purges of the 1970s, including the execution of 75 prisoners.
Eshetu Alemu, 63, was found guilty at his trial in the Hague of ordering the 1978 killing of camp detainees – many of them under 18 years of age – who were taken from their cells and strangled with ropes in a church.
In the hearings held under Dutch universal jurisdiction, Alemu, a former Mengistu regional representative, was convicted of all charges brought by prosecutors, including arbitrary detention, inhumane treatment, torture and mass murder.
“The fact that the majority of victims were children younger than 18 makes the crimes all the more cruel,” said presiding judge Mariette Renckens.
Alemu came to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker in 1990 and had been in custody since 2015. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges but was not present when the verdict was read out.
Negus Gebeyehu, a prisoner in a camp under Alemu’s control, gave an emotional speech in the Hague court following the verdict as other victims cheered.
“Justice has been done for Ethiopia,” he said. “I was imprisoned as a young man and I survived. This is also the day for us to forgive.”
An Ethiopian court had sentenced Alemu to death in absentia in 2007 for his role in the “Red Terror”, which Mengistu’s communist military junta conducted after Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, was ousted in 1974.
Mengistu was found guilty in absentia of genocide in the same trial in 2007, where he and top members of his military government were accused of killing thousands during his 17-year rule.
“Today’s verdict shows perpetrators that the Netherlands will not be a safe haven,” Jirko Patist of the national prosecutor’s office said.
The Netherlands is one of the European countries that has established an international crimes prosecution unit to prosecute alleged war criminals residing in the Netherlands even if their crimes were committed abroad.