On forgiving and the truth in relation to crimes of the Derg in Ethiopia

Firew Kebede Tiba, PhD –
I have been following the arguments for and against an initiative in the works about the forgiving by the wider public of the former Derg government officials. This initiative by the heads of the four religious groups [Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical] is being criticized by notable organized groups, such as, the families of the 60 Haile Selassie government officials summarily executed by the Derg. Expectedly, there is bound to be both an opposition and support for this initiative.

I cannot even begin to fathom what it is like for victims of the terror unleashed by the Derg on the cross-section of the society between 1974 until the early 1980s, let alone suggest how best this ought to be handled. Not being a direct victim, I can only speak for myself as a citizen who has a stake in the country’s future and as an indirect victim for the loss which my country sustained as a result of the abuses committed.

The legal issue: whether this is possible at all: The Ethiopian Constitution, in line with modern international human rights law, prohibits amnesty or pardon for such grave international crimes, but allows the Head of State to commute death sentence to that of life. The government has not said anything about this or has not even acknowledged that there is such an initiative in the works. It is unlikely that it will amend the Constitution to allow amnesty or pardon as it is simply against international law to do so, but also, there is nothing it can gain politically from such a move. Neither is there any political constituency to be served as Derg partisans are almost totally vanquished. I suspect that it is going to exercise the Head of State’s power to commute death penalty to that of life. It would not be such a risky move on its part, since the High Court had previously sentenced them to life before its decision got overturned by the Federal Supreme Court which imposed death sentence thereby making the final statement on the extent of their guilt. For the wider public, the human rights violations of the Derg is no longer vivid and politically motivated state crimes still continue to be committed putting in to question the moral legitimacy of the current government to punish others. But this is not about the current government, for the country will live on to be able to prosecute those who have currently taken their turns to commit some similar crimes.

The plan lacks clarity and details:

On the other hand, the initiative lacks clarity as there is no indication of whether what is being requested amounts to a request for an amnesty which wipes out the criminal responsibility of the convicted or simply calls for a customary and religious ritual of forgiveness without affecting the consequences of the Trial process. To be fair to the convicts, they have been requesting for an apology forum to be organized since the Trial Court rendered its decision on their guilt in 2006. There seems to be a genuine desire on their part to seek redemption regardless of whether they were sentenced to death or not. Some argue that their remorse is not genuine since they did not admit guilt during trial. Considering that they were going through a legal procedure, their ‘not guilty’ plea should not be held against them.

Between life sentence and capital punishment:

The issue now is whether the Ethiopian society is not prepared to settle for nothing less than the execution of those on the death row. Unlike most amnesty debates, this is coming 20 years after the suspects have been put behind bars and it is unique in demonstrating that one can have both justice and truth at the same time provided we utilize this opportunity carefully. They have already served for a period equivalent to life sentence under Ethiopian law provided they can qualify for parole. This is in fact what they would have expected, if an ad hoc international tribunal was established to try their cases or if capital punishment was abolished in Ethiopia.

Truth and forgiveness:

In my opinion, the religious leaders have been secretive about their activities and have not thoroughly thought through on how to capitalize on this and get the most desirable outcome for everyone concerned. Any generalized apology request without shedding light on some of the most mysterious instances of murder and disappearances for which the Trials did not provide conclusive answers is not going to be helpful. The religious leaders know too well that the heads of their Churches and a lot of other individuals were disappeared without a trace. They owe it to such people that the truth be told if the society is to extend them forgiveness. It would be a pity if they are to follow the same comical pardoning process that took place following the imprisonment of the opposition leaders in the wake of the 2005 disputed election.

Apology and individual guilt and remorse:
Apology has to be individualized. The Derg trials did not give us satisfactory answers as to who did what in the Derg leadership. The major trial seemed more like a condemnation of the collective leadership of the Derg and did not pinpoint the extent of each accused’s individual criminal responsibility. If we do not use this opportunity to get answers to some of the vexing questions, then we will have failed in our attempt at uncovering the truth. Who wouldn’t want to hear from the perpetrators directly as to what happened to Emperor Haileselassie; the murder of the renowned author Behalu Girma and numerous other figures whose murder or disappearance is still shrouded in mystery?

Better planning and broader consultation:
From what I know they were planning to organize a one day (possibly televised) forgiving ceremony composed of 500 individuals (mainly victims and families) from all parts of the country. This is brief and will not answer all questions citizens and victim families might have and they need to be better organized and they should consult broadly with all those concerned. It would be much better if they included the victims and alleged perpetrators of similar abuses committed by individuals belonging to the other camp, such as EPRP and MEISON etc. We cannot keep glossing over this side of our unpleasant past forever. This might be like opening a can of worms and the timid religious establishments may not have an appetite or the permission to engage in such broader search for truth. In any case, they will need to solicit expert advice on the various implications of this exercise and should steer clear of activities that may end up whitewashing history or harm their reputation painting them as apologists of dictatorship.

Hamilton, New Zealand
The writer is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. He could be reached at:firewtiba@gmail.com

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