ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — Ethiopia's Supreme Court sentenced former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam to death in his absence Monday, along with 17 senior officials of his regime, overturning a previous life term on appeal.
The court followed the request of the prosecution to toughen the sentence imposed in January 2007 on Mengistu, who has lived in comfortable exile in Zimbabwe since he was toppled in 1991, after he was found guilty of genocide at the end of a decade-long trial.
Mengistu, an army lieutenant colonel, was a member of the Marxist junta known as the Derg which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 after the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie, assuming control of it in a bloody coup in 1977.
The genocide charges arose from a crackdown against opponents in 1977-78 known as the Red Terror in which tens of thousands were killed or disappeared.
The court that passed life sentences in 2007 accepted pleas for leniency from the defence, but Supreme Court judge Desta Gebru rejected them Monday.
"The court has decided to revoke the leniency appeal from the defendants," he said in his ruling. "It has sentenced them to death.
"They have tortured and executed thousands of innocent people in public, which applies as genocide according to Ethiopian law."
"Despite claiming that the killings resulted from the chaos that ensued after the (1974) coup, the defendants ordered massacres and abuses several years after the death of the emperor," the judge added.
"All defendants are guilty of genocide, murder and illegal confiscation and detainment of innocent people. As a result, they will be handed out the most severe punishment in Ethiopian law."
Desta said the court would await the confirmation of the sentences by President Girma Woldegiorgis -- who has the power to amend them again -- before fixing an execution date.
Those sentenced to death along with Mengistu included Legesse Afsaw, known as "the butcher of Tigre", former vice-president Fisseha Desta and former prime minister Fikresellassie Wogderes.
On the reading of the Supreme Court's verdict, many relatives of the accused in court burst into tears. None would comment to AFP.
Although the death sentence is sometimes pronounced in Ethiopia, only two people have been executed in the past 10 years and none since August 2007.
Following the end of Mengistu's trial last year, Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe ruled out his extradition, saying, "Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest".
The Federal High Court had convicted Mengistu and 11 of his top aides in December 2006 on 211 counts of genocide, homicide, illegal imprisonment and illegal property seizure.
A further 60 defendants were also found guilty of genocide, but only by a majority 2-1 ruling by the judges, who acquitted some but not all on several of the lesser charges.
Only one defendant was acquitted on all charges.
Mengistu and his former top aides were also accused of the murders of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, whom they overthrew in 1974, and Orthodox Patriarch Abuna Tefelows.
Of the 73 accused, 14 had died and only 33 were present in court. Mengistu was among 25 defendants tried in absentia.
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