Ethiopia has commuted the death sentences of 23 people convicted of genocide for their part in the “Red Terror” purges during the rule of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The 23 still face life in prison.
Among those spared the death penalty Wednesday are many senior officials in the Mengistu government, including former vice-president Fisseha Desta and former prime minister Fikreselassie Wogderes.
The 23 were imprisoned after Mengistu’s Communist military junta collapsed in 1991. They were convicted of genocide and sentenced to die in 2008 after a lengthy trial.
President Girma Woldegiorgis said he was commuting the sentences to life in prison in response to an appeal by leaders of Ethiopia’s Christian and Muslim communities.
In a telephone interview, government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said all those granted clemency had expressed remorse.
"There was an ongoing movement on the part of religious organizations seeking for pardon and reconciliation and considering the active repentance made by the former ex-Dergue officials and these have been submitted to the president, and by the power vested in him in the constitution, he has granted the request," said Shimeles.
Thousands of the Dergue’s suspected political opponents were believed to have been killed during the military junta’s 17 years in power, many in gruesome fashion.
Spokesman Shimeles Kemal called the presidential clemency a sign that time is healing the wounds of the Dergue era.
"This measure shows the government has come to grips with the country’s horrendous past," he said.
It was not immediately clear when the former Dergue officials might be released. Legal experts say a life term carries with it a maximum of 25 years in prison. Several of those granted clemency Wednesday have already served 20 years.
Colonel Mengistu, who presided over the Red Terror, was tried and sentenced to death in absentia at the same time as the other Dergue officials. Now 73-years-old, he lives in Zimbabwe under the protection of President Robert Mugabe.