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Domestic versus International investigation of the crimes committed in Tigray: Lessons from Ethiopia Red Terror Trials



Tomorrow the forty fourth UN Human Rights Council session will be held in Geneva, where the fate of the International Commission for Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) will be determined. It is no secret that the Ethiopian regime has been opposing the establishment of this body. It has attempted to discredit all of ICHREE’s reports and is now working tirelessly to get this independent body to be dismantled, arguing that there is a domestic transitional justice process underway. However, because transitional justice is the goal where perpetrators of gross human rights violations are dealt with and victims of these abuses receive restitution, it makes little sense to leave the fact-finding to parties that had, in one way or another, involvement in the war itself. As this article articulates well, relying on the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to lead a genuine transitional justice process is foolish. Perhaps another significant input to these discussions is Ethiopia’s previous attempt at transitional justice and drawing some critical lessons to bolster current arguments in favour of renewing the mandate of ICHREE.

It was just in recent history, following the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, that Ethiopia experienced one of the worst genocides aimed at destroying the ‘enemies of the revolution’. 

This event is known as the Ethiopian Red Terror. Even though it is recorded in history as one of the most abhorrent incidents in Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s young population has little knowledge of this event. In fact, before the start of the 2020 Tigray war, and for most of the two years of the civil war, it was common to see on the rear window of many vehicles in Addis Ababa the pictures of Derg’s Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and prime minister Abiy Ahmed juxtaposed next to each other as current day heroes. Political pundits and media personalities spoke favourably about the Derg era, reminiscing about its supposed commitment to national identity, disregarding the violent and oppressive nature of the regime.

This begs the question of whether the current genocide in Tigray or the daily human rights violations in all parts of Ethiopia will be forgotten by future generations. 

Could Ethiopia’s failure to educate the public about the brutal offenses of the Red Terror and their lack of shared understanding of what happened promote the recurrence of genocide and the continuation of human rights violations in the country? In this article, I will use the book “The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials” to explore what went wrong in the transitional justice efforts that were made after the fall of the Derg and what measures we can take today to prevent making the same mistakes.

As I write on transitional justice, I am aware of the number of people suffering in Tigray, displaced from their homes, not receiving food and medical aid, and continuously harassed and tortured by local and foreign forces, especially in Western and Northern Tigray. Isaias Afeworki’s pundits continue with their hateful rhetoric that targets Tigrayans and makes them victims of violence and injustice in these parts of Tigray. Abiy Ahmed also tries to pull Tigrayans into his never-ending violence toward his people in the name of law and order, making genocide a continuous threat to Tigrayans. Furthermore, we must acknowledge the thousands of civilians being killed, imprisoned, and tortured in other regions in Ethiopia. However, even amid such suffering, we should not lose sight of the future where an unadulterated public memory of the political terror that ensued and continues to ensue. Effort is required to lock the brutality of these events in the conscience of Ethiopians, not just now but for generations to come. Such foundational work starts with fact-finding and truth-establishing efforts, leading to a permanent record of atrocities that an independent body such as the ICHREE can perform.

But first, let us remember what the Ethiopian Red Terror was like. In the book mentioned abobe, the author Baharu Zewde depicts how the terror that Derg’s military dictatorship used to consolidate its power began with the killings of 60 generals and other officials of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime without any trials. The Emperor was also killed summarily. Following this, thousands of young intellectuals were killed, including the May Day Massacre of 1977. A BBC article best described the terror following survivors’ accounts:

“Feed a man his own flesh, pull out his nails, boil him in oil, stuff his mouth with a cloth soaked in urine, and human excrement, use pincers to rip off his nose, smash a bottle in a woman’s vagina, cut her nipples and breasts, brutalize loved ones in front of him or her, only then, cut his her throat or strangle them with piano wire. This is no simple murder. This was the “Red Terror.” (Tronvoll, Schaefer, Aneme 2009, 4.)

The massive human rights violation seen in Abiy Ahmed’s regime seem to have been taken from the playbook of Mengistu’s Derg regime, which constituted “a state-sponsored terror in the forms of sexual abuse, summary execution, torture, arbitrary arrest and detentions, disappearance, unlawful dispossession of property, the use of food aid as a political tool, and forced settlement.” (Tronvoll, Schaefer, Aneme 2009, 4.) Baharu Zewde further elaborates that “terror was a system of power threatening and punishing people for what they were, not what they did,” as was represented by the edict ‘yasaba wayem yasasaba’ (whoever dared to think or pushed others to think [about counter revolutionary ideas] (Tronvoll, Schaefer, Aneme 2009). Thus, society either became part of the perpetrators in blood or part of the politically passive. This again highlights the similarity between these two regimes, seen in their “arrogant defiance towards public opinion” and their utilisation of terror in “indiscriminate detentions, assassinations, extra-judicial killings, and summary executions”.

Abiy also took from Mengistu’s playbook the use of an assassination attempt to rally the public in solidarity for himself against a political party, as seen in the assassination attempt of September 1976 on Mengistu and how that was used as the justification of the killings of 23 EPRP members the next month. Although Abiy did not repeat Mengistu’s theatrical smashing of bottles filled with red ink, representing the unending shedding of blood, his rhetoric resembles it, continuing the legacy of the culture of killing with impunity. Yet another commonality is what Bahiru calls the democratization of terror, starting from the Addis Ababa city Council to the Kebeles entrusted with full authority to kill any suspect. In Ethiopia today, the Addis Ababa City government, the Police, local and federal, the Security office, and the military detain, imprison, torture, and even kill people without coordination.

Such gross human rights abuses require transitional justice. In the case of the Derg’s violations, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who declared victory over the regime, took the lead in establishing a Transitional government of Ethiopia. There were debates about the policy decision to follow a domestic judicial process instead of an international tribunal, which would have had more legitimacy and credibility). Sarah Vaughan, author and writer on Ethiopian politics, argues that from a social science perspective, the domestic court processes are superior because the constant iteration of the issues in social norms allows for the change of collective patterns of belief and behaviour. However, she also points out that such proceedings usually occur after the accused are ousted from power, diminishing the proceedings’ legitimacy as ‘victor’s justice’. Unfortunately, in the end, the Ethiopian public was sceptical about the Red Terror Trials, viewing the investigation, charging defendants, judicial proceedings, and disseminating information about these activities as political. There are several reasons for this.

The EPRDF selected retributive justice methods to pursue transitional justice, opting for a legal accounting of what happened. In an interview with Kjetil Tronvoll, the then prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi explained that the heinous nature of the human rights abuse required a legal accounting rather than the Ethiopian cultural non-adversarial approach to justice. In addition, he clarified that the demarcation of the past from the present was necessary and that a court trial, which all Ethiopians are accustomed to, would best establish that. In line with this, the office of the Chief Special Prosecutor was established by Proclamation 22/1992 on 8 August 1992 with what Vaughan calls a dual mandate:

  • “to conduct investigations and institute proceedings in respect of any person having committed or responsible for the commission of an offence…under Derg-WPE regime”; and
  • “to record for posterity the brutal offences, the embezzlement of property perpetrated against the people of Ethiopia and to educate the people and make them aware of these offences in order to prevent the recurrence of such a system of government”. 

The Ethiopian Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) was met with several challenges from the outset. Besides the issue related to habeas corpus, infringing on the rights of the detainees as the trials took over ten years to complete, it was an inexperienced institution, ill-equipped for the complex mandate it was given. The lack of experience and knowledge in the area of crimes against humanity, the logistical difficulties in collecting, analyzing, and documenting large-scale evidence from across the country, and the inadequate levels of infrastructure to accomplish its dual mandate contributed to its incompetency, leading to constant criticism by the international community.

The lack of a speedy trial prevented the crimes of the Red Terror from having a timely conclusion, which would have perhaps given the public enough time to separate past events from what was perceived as a continuation of an unfavourable political environment. In fact, as the years went by and the broader human rights picture deteriorated in Ethiopia, it was difficult for the international and Ethiopian community to see the SPO as a professional institution and not a political one, arguably making it lose its legitimacy. The public lost trust when the charges against senior members of the Derg military were dropped for lack of evidence right at the time of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, and new arrests of people allegedly connected to the red terror were made.

The failure of the SPO to maintain an apolitical reputation and its inability to fulfill the second aspect of its mandate meant that “for a large proportion of Ethiopia’s overwhelmingly young population, the proceedings have an almost surreal air, something from another, and little intelligible, world”. It is reasonable to believe that if the legal proceedings were separated from “the project of disseminating an awareness of the past,” the independence of the courts maintained, and there was another body tasked to work simultaneously in the awareness and education project, the wider Ethiopian public, across political and generational divisions, will have forged a “national consensus in the fight against impunity”.

On the other hand, Tronvoll points out that the EPRDF used the trials as a political tool to give legitimacy to a new system of governance in the form of a federal ethnic government that was believed to serve as a check and balance against human rights abuses of a central government. In addition, he points out how states in transition are politically fragile and that the accusations of human rights abuses that continued under EPRDF. Furthermore, Tronvoll elaborates that there were failures to bring forth the whole truth about the violations in that the SPO was limited in its scope of investigation to warring factions and movements during 1974-91. It failed to bring charges to EPRP and Ma’ison members for their share of atrocities committed, and it avoided war crimes charges altogether to shield the then participating groups like the TPLF, OLF, and EPLF who would have been implicated. It is thus legitimate to ask whether a domestic judiciary is the right way to go, considering that “any action taken – juridical and or/political – against the former regime will be used in creating historical discontinuity with the past as part of the relational dimension of national identity-forming processes” (Tronvoll, Schaefer, Aneme 2009, 94). In the end, even PM Meles Zenawi acknowledged the failure of the trials in engaging the public in its process to bring about national consensus against Derg’s violations of human rights, faulting mainly the longevity of the trials: “I think we sort of swallowed more than we could chew”.

In conclusion, at a minimum, the Red Terror trials can teach us today that the effort to account for human rights violations cannot be left to state actors if whole truths about these events are to be the foundation for any form of transitional justice efforts taken in the future. An independent, apolitical body is necessary for a just settlement of human rights violations, especially in its initial truth-finding stages. Whether a domestic or an international judiciary is pursued is another matter that requires the representation of the people to design the preferred policy. Yet for a national consensus about these human rights violations and related crimes against humanity to be held, the initial fact-finding step should be left to independent bodies such as ICHREE, which will be well-resourced for the task.  


Donek Tesfaye Zemo was the Ministry Evaluation and Learning Lead at SIM, a mission organization committed for the holistic transformation of people including bringing real hope and help to a conflict weary world. She was responsible for giving consultation to more than 300 ministries in over 40 countries in strategic, outcome focused evaluation. Prior to that she served as the deputy country director of SIM in Ethiopia ensuring that the 30-40 ministries carried out by more than 400 workers were appropriately planned, resourced, executed and reviewed. Since leaving SIM, in February of 2023, she works as a freelance consultant and researcher.

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  1. Free Tigray, not only from Fanno and Shabiya but also from TPLF party leaders

    September 17, 2023 at 10:38 am

    TPLF leaders and their supporters within Tigray and overseas are putting poor Tigrayans in slow-motion execution by starving them and abandoning them to perish . These TPLF mutidegree murderers sent their families abroad, and their riffraff are collecting money in the name of poor tigrayaans and manipulating the funding donated by generous people who have been deceived into believing that they are helping poor tigrayans.

    ****Free Tigray, not only from Fanno and Shabiya but also from TPLF party leaders

  2. Mahibrekidusan and Shaleka Dawit are all terrorists

    September 13, 2023 at 10:51 am

    Shabiya supporter activists , Ethio 360, Habtamu Ayalew,Andargachew Tisge, Messay Mekonen, Derje Habtewelde (Dere News), and his gang, Shaleka Dawit, are all terrorists.

    **There are rumors that Abiy Ahmed imported a bullet-proof multi-million-dollar car, and in this mesmerizing car, an astonishingly designed, tiny, clinder-shaped ceramic-built pot can be seen, in which Abiy Ahmed responds to nature’s call, especially when he is succumbing to a biological hazard.
    Dismantle Mahibrekidusan, a radical Fanno supporter who sparks religious and ethnic-based violence among fellow Ethiopians while playing the religious card.

    —————Mahibrekidusan and Shaleka Dawit are all terrorists—————–

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