The Religious Leaders' Call for Granting Forgiveness
to the Convicted Derg Officials: A Feasible Plan or a Misconceived Idea?

By Tesfaye Habisso
Feb. 14 2011


The reign of the military regime (1974-1991), popularly known as the Derg (committee), which toppled the monarchical regime of the last emperor of the so-called Solomonic Dynasty, Emperor Haile Sellassie I (1930-1974), represents one of the darkest periods of Ethiopia's modern history. Its ruthlessness and wanton destruction can be categorized, among others, under three main areas: 1) Extra-judicial killings and disappearances; 2) diverting and selling off food aid and also denying emergency relief to millions of starving and famine-stricken populations across the country; and, 3) moving populations from their home areas and forcefully settling them in remote and hardship or hostile regions that led to the death of more than 100, 000 poor peasants, mostly from Tigrai, Wollo and Kambata.

Extra-judicial Killings and Disappearances

A junta which catapulted itself to the helm of state power in 1974 with a populist slogan of "Ethiopia Tidem, Yaleminim Dem" ('Ethiopia First, Without Any Bloodshed') soon changed gear and begun shedding blood without any due process and compassion and relegated the slogan of "Ethiopia First, Without Any Bloodshed" to the dustbin of history. Soon after the brutal murder of Emperor Haile Sellassie I, one of the longest reigning monarchs of Ethiopia as well as one of the founding fathers of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and 68 top civilian and military officials of the imperial regime, it begun a Stalinist-style 'Red Terror": a systematic and widespread mass killings of the intelligentsia, political elites, church and mosque leaders and other civilians as well as military personnel that were vehemently opposed to the misguided policies of the junta. The 'Red Terror' lasted from 1976/1977 to 1978/1980. Even those who were suspected of allying with the then operating clandestine opposition political groups, which it categorically dubbed 'counter-revolutionaries', were not spared from the mass murder and extra-judicial killings. The military regime in collaboration with its ruthless henchmen and cadres unleashed a reign of terror, mass murder, torture and serial killings. It was alleged that between 100 and 150 people were killed every night in the capital Addis Ababa. Megistu's security forces tortured political prisoners, dipping bodies in hot oil, pouring hot oil into the ears of suspected 'counter-revolutionaries', raping and inserting broken bottles and heated metals in bodies of female prisoners, and worst of all, forcing a brutally tortured 60-years-old mother to feed on the flesh of her own victimized son, perpetrating disappearances on many hundreds of innocent citizens such as Bealu Girma. Who can possibly enumerate the brutalities and wrongs of the Derg era?

As Dawit Wolde Ghiorghis, the then close ally of the junta succinctly put it:
"It was gang warfare with arbitrary executions, lynchings, and street massacres. No one was spared: men or women, young or old were gunned down in broad daylight or dragged out of their homes at night and killed. Bands of men attacked anyone they suspected of holding opinions other than their own. Many high school students were among the dead. Bullet-ridden bodies were left in the streets, or publicly exhibited to try to intimidate rival factions. It is said that Mengistu originally had a list of more than a thousand people to be eliminated in the Red Terror. Many others close to Mengistu seemed to have lots of their own lists. The Red Terror claimed thousands of victims across the country [Dawit W. Ghiorghis, War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia. 1981. The Red Sea Press. p.32]

Another Ethiopianist Rene Lefort sadly notes:
"...Then the massacre continued, but more discreetly. Week after week, dozens of 'oppositionists' were arrested, taken to the outskirts of the town and executed. Their bodies would be found in the morning, piled up in heaps or lying in riverbeds and at the bottom of ravines. The bodies of the victims were handed over only after payment for the bullets that had killed them..." [Rene Lefort, Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution?. 1981. Zed Press. p. 201].

During the 'May Day Massacre' alone, in 1977, "thousands of students and intellectuals were slaughtered, their bodies left in the streets to be ravaged by hyenas at night. Some families who were fortunate enough to identify the bodies of their murdered youths were required to pay for the bullets that were used to kill their sons and daughters before they could take the corpses for a proper funeral..." [Ketjil Tronvoll et al. 2009. The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional Justice Challenged. p.3]. The Hawzien Massacre in Tigrai, in 1989/90-- a bombing raid by the air force targeting the rebels in the area-- snuffed out the lives of more than 2,500 innocent civilians gathered in a marketplace in Hawzien for routine trading activities. Many thousands of innocent citizens suffered injuries on their bodies, physically and psychologically and the traumas still haunting them. Furthermore, more than 2.5 million Ethiopians fled the country, and the national economy was completely destroyed and in shambles; in fact, as some critics maintain, there was no economy to talk about in the real sense of the word.

The tale of what happened during the dark days in Ethiopia, both during the imperial regime and the Derg era, must be told again and again and again, not out of a morbid desire for gruesome tales, but out of a concern that the innocent dead should continuously sear the memories of the living. Only then can 'never again' cease to be an empty cry.

Diverting Away and Selling Off and Also Denying Emergency Relief Supplies and Selling-off Food Aid.

During the 1973-74 famine, Ethiopia received large amounts of food aid from Europe and U.S. America. Although the provinces of Eritrea and Tigrai were most affected, food was diverted from them to starve the rebels there into submission. The government of Haile Sellassie sold much of the donated food on the world market; the money went to line the pockets of regime members. The government even offered to sell the U.S. 4,000 tons of grain, which the U.S. would then donate back to Ethiopia, thereby helping the U.S. to fulfil its pledge of 22,500 tons of donated food. The offer was declined [Shepard; Legum; Osterfeld, 1985, pp. 264-66].

The actions of the Mengistu government during the 1984-1985 famine were remarkably similar. Though thousands starved, the government not only spent over $200 million to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Marxist revolution, it also earned $15 million in revenues by charging ships loaded with donated food a port-entry fee of $50.50 a ton. Ships unable to pay the fee were turned away, cargo unloaded [Fenwick]. Again, the Eritrea-Tigrai area was sealed off, and those smuggling food into the area were attacked by the army. Food shipments were seized and some of it used to feed the army. Some has been sold on the world market, and the money earned used to buy munitions for the war against the rebels [David Osterfeld. 1990. The Failures and Fallacies of Foreign Aid, Vol. 40].

Removing Populations from Their Home Areas and Settling them In Remote Hardship Regions

During the 1984-85 famine, the Derg regime forcefully removed many hundreds of poor peasants from their home areas in Tigrai, Wollo and Kambata and settled them in remote and hardship regions such as Benishangul, Gambella, Wollega, Illubabor and other areas. It is believed that more than 100,000 perished due to lack of medical provisions, starvation, malaria, water-borne diseases and other man-made calamities.

Three decades after the appalling bloodshed and mass killings of more than five-hundred thousand Ethiopians in a counter-revolutionary campaign called the 'Red Terror', the main officials who orchestrated the brutal violence and gross human rights violations--Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the key political leaders of his military junta--were found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity on December 12, 2006, twelve years after the trials began. In May 2008, the Federal Supreme Court gave its final verdict, imposing death sentences on 18 of the top Derg officials still alive including Mengistu Haile Mariam. It was only a couple of years ago, that is in May 2008, that the top Derg officials received what they legally deserve and it is, for me, quite strange when I find former victims and the country's religious leaders clamouring and making impassioned pleas and calls to the government and people of Ethiopia to forgive and set free the said Derg officials at the earliest time possible. Call it Dutch disease or Stockholm syndrome (to use Makonnen Endalkachew's phrase), this stance, which has not, so far, fully taken into consideration the perspectives of the surviving victims and the families of the dead, is just incomprehensible to the latter and to all voices of reason across the country.

As many scholars contend, a disposition to too readily forgive may also be symptomatic of lack of self-respect, or indicative of servility, ordinarily viewed as moral infirmities or vices [Novitz, 1998]. This recalls Aristotle's idea that the person deficient in appropriate anger is "unlikely to defend himself" and "endure being insulted" and is for this reason a "fool" [Nicomachean Ethics, 1126a5], Kant's notion that a person who fails to become angry at injustices done to him lacks dignity and self-respect [Kant, 2001], and Hume's assertion that since anger and hatred are "inherent in our very frame and constitution" the lack of such feelings is sometimes evidence of "weakness and imbecility" [Hume, 1958, p. 605]. That interpersonal forgiveness does not always serve morally laudable aims suggests that a general account of the criteria for justified and morally permissible or even obligatory forgiveness is needed to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate forgiving [Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy. 2010, p.4].

The purpose of this article, however, is not meant to downgrade the efforts of the religious leaders, nor to open up wounds of the past, or to discourage our religious leaders and other supporters of the latter's call for forgiveness and reconciliation in Ethiopia to pursue their objective of facilitating or brokering divinely forgiveness for the convicted Derg officials from their Creator and humanly mercy from the surviving victims (Political pardon, I believe, is unthinkable for mass murderers and serial killers, as international law has stipulated that such criminals do not deserve it, including the Derg officials). However, the call for mercy by the religious leaders is indeed a noble campaign worth pursuing, as the wounds of the past still remain very bitter for many thousands of Ethiopians. Kudos to all these long-missing but newly energized religious leaders and the moral agents of social reconciliation and peace in the nation's socio-political space.

This article is aimed at, first, clarifying the point, in passing, to my relative Mulugeta Asserate Kassa who was the first person to open the debate on the issue that the question of forgiveness for the Derg officials is still a debatable issue and that all debaters have their inalienable right to hold different opinions on the issue and their opinions must be respected by all of us, even if we may not agree with their views, and we should not vilify them as " wayward...confused and confounded...longwinded, etc, etc." (FORTUNE, Vol. 11, No. 561, Jan. 30, 2011, p.27); none of us can claim to possess the ultimate wisdom in any area of intellectual pursuit; second, the theological conception of forgiveness is completely different from the constitutionally entrenched power of political pardon which is the sole prerogative of the FDRE President, and that it is wrong to confuse these two different concepts of forgiveness and conciliation in our debate, and, third, to highlight some salient points regarding the vexed questions of 'forgiving but not forgetting', justice versus revenge, the plea for compassion to the accused on the basis of service to their country and their unblemished past record, time and age, etc. in the realm of politics.

On the Issue of Forgetting
Although the present generation may not know the full enormity and gravity of the Derg's atrocities, the surviving victims and their families will never forget. Forgetting their victims would mean forgetting themselves, because the victims were part of their identity. Justice allows the victims to come to terms with their victimization. Forgetting a murder victimizes the dead person twice over. First, his/her life is desecrated; then, his/her death is desecrated. By denying the dead justice, we make their deaths meaningless. We impose a posthumous cruelty on them. The memory of the victims should be hallowed. By saying we shall do nothing about their deaths we instead degrade the memory of their victimization.

The suggestion that forgetting is an option is an illusion. In reality, the choice becomes what to remember, truth or fiction. Failure to confront the truth allows the perpetrators and their cohorts to wallow in a false nostalgia for a mythical golden era when the perpetrators held sway. This phoney nostalgia in turn generates a risk that society will fall back into its old bad ways. Findings in a court of law beyond any reasonable doubt that real crimes---genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity---were committed are crucial to prevent lies about the past.

On the Question of forgiving

Throughout human history, forgiveness has typically been regarded as a personal response to having been injured or wronged, or as a condition one seeks or hopes is bestowed upon one for having wronged someone else. Forgiveness or mercy may be appropriate to sentencing. It is not appropriate to the determination of innocence or guilt. Indeed, how is it possible to forgive, for example in the case of the top Derg officials of Ethiopia, or anyone who says I did not do it? Yes, that is the typical response of those against whom there is evidence of complicity in massive crimes, from the Nuremberg Trials in Germany after WWII to the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot Killing Fields Trials in Cambodia in 1979, from the ICTR in Rwanda in 1994 to the 'Red Terror' Derg Trials in Ethiopia (1991-2009).

The sentiments of those who wish to forgive what has happened to them are noble ones. If victims wish to forgive the crimes done to them, if victims wish to show mercy to those who have done them wrong, I applaud the victims for it. But I have no authority to forgive what is done to you or my beloved father or mother or any other relative or friend, what is done to others. For those who have been murdered, the person who can forgive is gone. It would be impudent of me, or any other person, to forgive the murder of another. It is not my place, or any other person's authority, to forgive. It does not fall to outsiders to grant forgiveness on behalf of the victims. Above all, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes. These are crimes against international humanitarian and customary law. No one has the authority to forgive these crimes on behalf of all humanity. These crimes are both unforgettable and unforgivable in the realm of politics and international law.

The Pursuit of Justice vs. Revenge
Justice is not revenge. Revenge is personal, justice is public. Revenge is partial--against some and not others; justice is impartial. Revenge is a motive; justice is an institution and a system. The difference between vengeance and justice is the difference between the tyranny of individual emotions and the rule of law. Justice must be tempered with mercy, of course. It should not be hardened with vengeance.

Justice creates a legacy for the victims. Justice cannot bring the victims back to life. But it can make good the promise "Never Again" by setting up mechanisms to deter any future such crimes. Justice also serves as a memory. Through justice the victims are remembered, an institutional record is created about what happened, what could have been done. There are many different ways of remembering the victims. But only through justice do we remember their murderers. To defend ourselves against the repetition of the crimes, we must not forget the criminals.

Memorials to victims of mass atrocities, and I have seen many, have this one feature in common: a complete absence of reference to the perpetrators. To look at these memorials, one would think that the victims fell prey to some unfortunate natural disaster. The reality that these victims fell prey to their friends and neighbours, often to the people in the immediate surroundings of the memorial, is lost. Only through justice do we develop a complete picture of the crime, of the perpetrators as well as the victims. It is a delusion to think that we can learn the lessons of the great crimes of the past by remembering only the victims and ignoring the perpetrators.
Through the trials of the few whom we manage to bring to justice we can see the faults of the many. By constructing a legacy of justice, we give meaning to the seeming meaningless of the death of so many innocents.

The Accused, Time and Age

There is an argument that the perpetrators are, for the most part, people without a criminal history before their crimes against humanity. And, afterwards, they are, typically, no longer a threat. They move on from mass killings to contributing to society, doing later nothing wrong. To their friends and neighbours without knowledge of their crimes, they seem to be decent, kind, hard-working souls, and now, some of them, geriatric and terminally ill. Besides, a time goes by and the perpetrators grow old, their friends and neighbours argue that the crimes happened a long time ago; the perpetrators are different people now.
Yes, unless we see the criminals in the dock, who they were, what their motivation was, the circumstances of their behaviour, the commission of massive crimes is incomprehensible. The worst crimes are committed by the most ordinary people. Indeed, the very massiveness of the crimes requires the whole scale cooperation of large numbers. It is all too easy to ascribe awful crimes to great devils who have no connection to ordinary humanity. Yet, the very scale of the crimes requires the active participation of ordinary human beings acting in every day ways.

The notion that great crimes are committed by great devils who have nothing in common with ordinary humanity is a self comforting delusion we all share which only justice can dispel. Only when we see a person after person in the dock who is not much different from our friends and neighbours going about their daily routines can we grasp the true horrors of genocide and crimes against humanity.

For humanity to be deterred from great crimes, we need to see the risks around us of the commission and re-commission of these crimes. We need to see how it is possible for our friends and neighbours to become partners in these crimes. Justice can tell us that: Immunity blinds us to it.

The failure of comprehensive prosecution of Nazi mass murderers after WWII has allowed all too many people to blame the Holocaust on Adolf Hitler. Yet, the primary responsibility for the Holocaust lay with ordinary Germans [Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, 1963], with ordinary people everywhere the Nazi invading armies went. Only the detailed presentation of the evidence and the pronouncement of guilt or innocence which a trial provides can drive that sort of lesson home.

Regarding the issue of time and age, it must be well understood that, there should be no statute of limitations for mass murderers. There is an international Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity. It is not just the seriousness of the crimes which speaks against a statute of limitations. It is also the difficulty of proceeding with trials immediately. It may take a while before the perpetrators are removed from power. The surviving victims may take years to get over the trauma sufficiently to testify against their perpetrators. Perpetrators flee to the far corners of the world and finding them can take a whole lot of time. A justice system may have to be constructed from scratch to replace the justice system the perpetrators destroyed. The principle behind a statute of limitations is that a justice system should move expeditiously and not delay prosecutions unduly. Yet, for massive crimes, there is no such thing as undue delay. Prosecution at any time is better than nothing.

On the other hand, old age is not a defence for any crime. A person may be unfit for trial. But a person who is able to understand the proceedings cannot be acquitted solely on the ground of old age. If a person committed a crime when old, he would be as responsible for the crime as a younger person. Old age and health deterioration cannot also be an excuse for parole eligibility of criminals convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, as these are crimes against all humanity and no one has the authority to forgive them. The mere fact that the person has become old or terminally ill since the crime was committed and the criminal convicted no more excuses him for the crime or the sentence passed than would old age at the time of the crime was committed.

Can the Religious Leaders and their Supporters Succeed in Securing Political Pardon and Freedom for the Derg Officials?

I don't think so at all. This is because the FDRE President can only pardon "any person who is convicted and sentenced by a court" only when the granting of pardon is not prohibited by law [Proclamation No. 395/2004, Art. 12 (1)]. But as the FDRE Constitution 1994, Art. 28 ( 1 & 2) clearly stipulates crimes against humanity "such as genocide, summary executions, forcible disappearances or torture shall not be barred by statute limitations, and that such offences may not be commuted by amnesty or pardon of the legislature or any other state organ." Be this as it may, persons convicted of the above crimes and sentenced with the death penalty may be granted the commutation of the punishment to life imprisonment [Art. 28 (2) of FDRE Constitution]. This means that the President has the power under the Pardon Clause to commute a death sentence on the condition that those whose death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment serve the rest of their lives in prison without eligibility for parole, even though a life sentence imposed directly by a court would otherwise be subject to parole. That is it; no legal or political decision can be made according to our Constitution that would pardon and set free the Derg officials. If the death sentences of the 18 top Derg officials may somehow be commuted to life imprisonment by the FDRE President, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison and die in prison. This looks the likely best offer for these criminals; there is no possibility for their release, I am afraid. The religious leaders will only be able to perhaps facilitate forgiveness and mercy for the Derg officials from their Creator, Allah/God, and from the surviving victims and the families of the dead, nothing more, as far as I understand.

Concluding Remarks

Finally, though the Ethiopian government has concluded the chapter of prosecution and punishment of the Derg officials and many of their henchmen, prosecution and/or general knowledge of the truth, thanks to the meticulous investigation efforts of the Special Prosecutor's Office, are today seen as an incomplete dealing with the crimes of the previous regime. Additional steps should include compensation by the state (monetary reparation, free medical and psychological treatment, reduced interest on loans for education and home building) and the establishment of permanent reminders of the legacy of the past, such as monuments, museums, public holidays and ceremonies. Although some of the latter compensations have already been done, the missing gaps should be filled sooner or later. Such steps are seen to provide channels for the non-violent expression of pain and anger. All in all, however, the brutal past of impunity and egregious human rights violations must never be repeated, and "NEVER AGAIN!" should not at all become an empty slogan in our country. If not, we will be facing the same fate of the Derg officials and their ruthless henchmen and cadres, one day, nothing else. 'Beseferut Quna Mesefer' (' We Reap What We Sow')! Yes, "Never Again!" must not become an empty cry.