Keeping up with the forgotten “guests”

As the new Ethiopian year 2006 dawned, the pres­i­dent of the coun­try – weeks before his final days in office – par­doned about 400 pris­on­ers. Hopes of the release of jour­nal­ists and activists who could use his ges­tures evap­o­rated in to thin air when fam­ily mem­bers told the media that their loved ones will not be join­ing them for the new year. It was not only the jour­nal­ists’ request for par­don that was left unan­swered, there were some two other “guests” who were men­tioned as a foot­note in the clemency story. They were told to sur­ren­der before request­ing forgiveness.

The two for­mer Der­gue offi­cials who are believed to be in their 70s caged in the Ital­ian Embassy in Addis Ababa have long been for­got­ten by local and inter­na­tional com­mu­nity. For those who care to check: Addis Tedla and Berhanu Bayeh might have bro­ken the world record for stay­ing longer than any­body else in an embassy com­pound: 22 years and counting.

You are not alone

The idea of seek­ing pro­tec­tion in diplo­matic mis­sions is not new. Many politi­cians and even ordi­nary peo­ple have tried to use embassies to evade threats to their life.

In 1989 the Pana­man­ian leader Gen­eral Manuel Nor­iega picked a fight with his mighty for­mer spon­sors. When the U.S. invaded his coun­try to arrest him, Nor­iega fled to the Vat­i­can Embassy in Panama City.He only lasted ten days before surrendering.

When the Berlin Wall was torn down and the days of reck­on­ing set in, the East Ger­many leader Erich Honecker flew to Moscow to seek refuge in the Chilean embassy there. He spent about three months before being handed over to Ger­man author­i­ties to have his days in court.

The whis­tle blower web­site Wik­iLeaks founder, who is hold up in the Ecuadorean embassy in Lon­don, is a present day exam­ple. The Aus­tralian born Julian Assange sought for extra­di­tion to Swe­den on sex­ual mis­con­duct charges has been shel­tered in the embassy for over a year now.

The Four Tops

Noth­ing is known about what a typ­i­cal day looks like for the for­mer Ethiopian offi­cials who are shel­tered in the Ital­ian embassy in the Ethiopian cap­i­tal. Ital­ians rarely divulge infor­ma­tion about their ‘‘guests.” If and when they have some­thing to say, it usu­ally cul­mi­nates in recrim­i­na­tion with the Ethiopian for­eign affairs min­istry who accuses Italy of ‘har­bour­ing criminals.’

Ethiopia and Italy had some­times tense rela­tion­ships. For long time the return of the Axum obelisk was a bone of con­tention between the two coun­tries. That prob­lem has since been resolved with the return of the mon­u­ment. Ethiopia has also been accus­ing Italy of sym­pa­thiz­ing with Eritrea when war broke out between the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries in 1998. And of course the case of the four “guests”, who short of being flown out of the coun­try man­aged to secure a save haven, have also been a source of tension.

 The Ital­ians have refused to hand over the sus­pects cit­ing the use of death penalty in the coun­try that con­tra­venes the Ital­ian law which has long abol­ished cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Italy so far has stood firm on its prin­ci­ples by keep­ing the sus­pects in its embassy with all the ensu­ing burden.

While no solu­tion to the impasse insight, the pos­si­bil­ity of a safe tran­sit out of the coun­try is faint. The fate of their two col­leagues only makes for the worst case sce­nario. From the orig­i­nal four, half have left the com­pound – deceased. The offi­cials who entered the embassy in the last days of May 1991are:

  • Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Tes­faye Gebre Kidan – long time Min­is­ter of Defense in the Der­gue admin­is­tra­tion; he was the country’s Pres­i­dent just for a week. Amid the chaos cre­ated by a flee­ing leader and a desert­ing army, the General’s last resort was the Ital­ian embassy where he spent the rest of his life until he was reported to have been killed in a brawl with his fel­low fugi­tive Berhanu Bayeh in June 2004.
  • Hailu Yemenu – was deputy then act­ing Prime Min­is­ter of the coun­try in the last days of the Marx­ist regime. Unlike the other three, he was not mem­ber of the Der­gue. Hailu Yemenu was a tech­no­crat who served in var­i­ous min­is­te­r­ial posi­tions includ­ing min­is­ter of indus­try and vice min­is­ter of mines. He is said to have com­mit­ted sui­cide days after enter­ing the embassy.
  • Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Addis Tedla – was the army Chief of Staff. He was known to be a soft spo­ken Der­gue mem­ber. Some mem­bers of his fam­ily liv­ing in the U.S. were said to have been allowed to pay him a visit.
  • Berhanu Bayeh – a well edu­cated Der­gue mem­ber, he served as min­is­ter to var­i­ous offices and he rose to the rank of Min­is­ter of For­eign Affaires when his pre­de­ces­sor Goshu Woldie defected to the U.S in the mid 1980s.

While in the com­pound, two of them have been con­victed in absen­tia; one died while the trial was in progress. Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, Hailu Yemenu was not even charged as the Spe­cial Prosecutor’s Office set up to deal with crimes com­mit­ted “under the Der­gue – WPE regime” was not even established.

Friends in high places

former-derg-officials-on-trialWhat is sur­pris­ing is those who were tried and sen­tenced to life in prison were able to get their free­dom through a clemency granted in Octo­ber 2011. Save for the news of the chal­lenges some of them faced find­ing a roof over their heads, as land­lords were reluc­tant to rent them a house, the for­mer offi­cials have largely sank into oblivion.

As to the Red Negus him­self, with the recent reelec­tion of the 89 year-old Zim­bab­wean leader Robert Mugabe for another five-year term his fear of extra­di­tion has gone for now. While nobody expects the octo­ge­nar­ian to live for eter­nity – at least on the planet earth – Mengistu’s night­mares could still be a reality.

It is hard to con­clude whether the incar­cer­a­tion of the for­mer offi­cials helped heal the wounds inflicted in those tur­bu­lent days of the late 70s when killing was almost the only solu­tion to win a rev­o­lu­tion. But some per­pe­tra­tors paid their due in one or the other way. Guilty or not, the mere fact of liv­ing in state of limbo for over two decades is a predica­ment no human being should be sub­jected to.
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