By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
A metro Denver man accused of being a notorious prison guard who tortured and killed political prisoners in Ethiopia was convicted of immigration fraud Friday in federal court.
U.S. government prosecutors made the case that Kefelgn Alemu Worku lied about his past and stole another man’s identity to come to Colorado in 2004 as a refugee and then gain citizenship.
The case has emerged as a beacon for refugees from Ethiopia, Rwanda and other countries where atrocities happened, who now are trying to expose fellow immigrants they suspect were criminals back home. Federal authorities have jailed another Ethiopian, in Atlanta, whom they suspect of committing atrocities.
The conviction in Denver has “opened the door” for uncertain and sometimes haunted immigrants seeking justice in the United States, said Samuel Ketema, 53, who received a tip that led to the confrontation of Alemu Worku, widely known as Tufa, outside the Cozy Cafe in Aurora.
“We know of many. They participated in atrocities. But we didn’t have any evidence, like for this case. But some day we will get them. Now we know what to do.”
Ketema and his brother, Kiflu, 58 — who in May 2011 told Alemu Worku “I think I know you” and notified federal authorities — are among the estimated 30,000 Ethiopian immigrants along Colorado’s Front Range. While many regard the dark side of Cold War-era Ethiopia as shameful and are trying to forget, about 20 packed U.S. District Judge John Kane’s courtroom Friday.
The verdict left them satisfied.
“I saw people being tortured by him. He killed one of my best friends,” said Kiflu Ketema, who testified during the week-long trial.
“Just put him in jail here and then send him back,” Ketema said. “I don’t want to see him walking the streets again. I left my country because of him.”
A jury took three hours to convict him on three charges of falsifying identity and lying — including statements that he never participated in persecution. Alemu Worku could face up to 22 years in prison and, after his release, deportation. His sentencing is set for Dec. 19.
Kane, who had ordered Alemu Worku to turn around and face his accusers as they testified in court, immediately stripped him of his citizenship.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney John Walsh called Alemu Worku a war criminal and said the trial “offered Alemu Worku’s victims the opportunity to speak the truth bravely for all to hear and to see that a measure of justice would be done, at long last.”
When Alemu Worku reached Colorado, he escaped notice for seven years because he hung mostly with teenagers and avoided Ethiopians likely to remember persecution, said Wanaw Beleta, 48, who was imprisoned himself.
“Every community has some of these people who don’t go to church, always hiding,” said Beleta, who was among those in the courtroom. “In the future, I hope, just like this, they go to court.”
Now a white-haired man in his 60s, Alemu Worku sat silently through Friday’s proceedings, arms folded, tilting his head forward as he listened with help from interpreters.
He had admitted, in a note to Kane, to lying about his identity, but he denied committing atrocities.
A handwritten document from Ethiopia, obtained by federal investigators and translated, indicates Alemu Worku was tried in absentia and sentenced to hang for war crimes.
The federal case focused on immigration violations rather than alleged crimes in Ethiopia, which happened during the 1970s under the former “Derg” dictatorship.
During the trial, torture survivors identified Alemu Worku and recounted the extreme degradation of prisoners, torture with sticks and bloody executions.
A network of prisons, run under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, was used systematically against Ethiopians associated with pro-democracy political opposition.
Federal public defender Matthew Golla argued that, while horrors happened, testimony based on 35-year-old recollections should leave at least a reasonable doubt as to Alemu Worku’s guilt.
“The individual who did these things is not sitting in this courtroom,” he told jurors.
But in the end, Golla said after the verdict, “the evidence was so painful that it made the case an uphill battle.”
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, twitter.com/finleybruce or firstname.lastname@example.org