Ethiopia's Supreme Court has overruled a lower court and imposed a death sentence on former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam for genocide and crimes against humanity during his 17-year rule. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe after his government fell, and was tried in his absence.

Ethiopia's highest court threw out a January, 2007 court ruling giving Mengistu and 17 of his senior associates life sentences for their part in the deaths of thousands of people between 1974 and 1991.

In a three-hour reading of the verdict, Justice Desta Gebru said the court has decided to revoke the leniency appeal from the defendants. It sentences them to death.

Justice Gebru agreed with a prosecution appeal that the life sentence was not commensurate with the crimes. After the original trial, which lasted 12-years, the defendants were convicted in 2006 of genocide for torturing and executing political enemies.

Many of the deaths occurred in 1977 and 1978, when Mengistu's Marxist government, called the Derg, or "the committee," carried out a purge known as the Red Terror.

Mengistu was an army lieutenant colonel when he led a military coup that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. He has been living in exile in Zimbabwe since he was ousted by Ethiopia's current government in 1991.

But several senior Derg officials were in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

Prosecutor Yoseph Kirkos expressed satisfaction at the high court's decision. He said the difference between a life sentence and death in absentia may be meaningless now, but it could make a big difference if Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is ousted in next month's election.

"For now you can say is no different," said Yoseph Kirkos. "But for tomorrow maybe the country which protects him, which gives him the right to live there, maybe knows the gravity of the crime, and his involvement in the crime. Maybe one day they can return him. When they look he is a criminal and he is a dangerous guy."

Former Ethiopian president and historian Negaso Gidada says persons convicted of genocide cannot be pardoned or granted amnesty. He says under Ethiopia's constitution, only the current president, Girma Woldegiorgis, could commute the sentences.

"In case of person convicted of any crimes stated in sub-article one in these articles and sentenced with the death penalty, the head of state may, without prejudice, commute the punishment to life imprisonment," said Negaso Gidada.

Negaso and prosecutor Kiros said while the issue of a commuted sentence may be moot for Mengistu, 17 other senior Derg officials are facing death. It was not immediately clear when or how the sentences might be carried out.

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court's decision came two days before Ethiopia's national day, when it celebrates the downfall of the Mengistu regime.