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Review of The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional Justice Challenged


By June Rock

The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional Justice Challenged. African Issues. . eds. Kjetil Tronvoll, Charles Schaefer & Girmachew Alemu Aneme. James Currey, Suffolk IP12 3DF and Rochester NY, 2009. Pp. 158. ISBN. 9781 847013200 (pb). £14.99.

This book provides the first in-depth look at the efforts of the current Ethiopian Government (the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF) to bring to justice the perpetrators of the mass atrocities carried out between 1976-1978 when tens of thousands of Ethiopian government critics were detained, tortured, and killed during what became known as the Red Terror Campaigns of the Derg Military Regime (1974-1991) and its brutal leader, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.  With contributions by specialists on Ethiopia from a range of disciplinary backgrounds – law, human rights, history, politics, and social anthropology – this collection covers not only the history and the juridical aspects of the trials, but also their broader political and social impacts.

In the introductory chapter, the editors, Tronvoll, Schaefer, and Girmachew Alemu Aneme, discuss the context of transitional justice in Ethiopia and provide an informative explanation for the EDPRF’s chosen mechanism, criminal prosecution.   Bahru Zewde then focuses on the Ethiopian Revolution and gives a detailed account of the build up to and different phases of the Red Terror Campaigns and their consequences.  The chapters by Frode Elgesema and Girmachew Alemu Aneme and Sarah Vaughan both analyse the conduct and performance of the trials and the efficiency of the institutions involved.  Though acknowledging the efforts of the EDPRF, they both highlight a number of shortcomings: in particular, the lack of capacity of the judiciary; and, the prolonged detention without charge of the accused. Frode Elgesema and Girmachew Alemu Aneme maintain that a result of these failings is the rights of the accused have not been respected; while Vaughan questions whether the trial format was the right way to go.  Schaefer also questions the appropriateness of the trail format, but from the perspective of its effectiveness for national reconciliation – restorative justice.  He cites, by way of example, the famous 1896 Battle of Adwa and accuses the EDPRF of failing to take account of historical forms of restorative justice by the Ethiopian public.

Shifting the focus from the juridical to the political, Tronvoll shows how the EPRDF’s chosen model of justice is that of a ‘victors’ justice; he also describes the ways in which the EDPRF used the trials to give legitimacy to the new Ethnic federation; and, he looks at the declining public interest in the trials since the mid-1990s due to their prolonged nature, but also as a result of Ethiopia’s current human rights record. Elsa Van Huyssteen contrasts Ethiopia’s choice of criminal prosecution – with its emphasis on retributive justice – with that of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – with its emphasis on restorative justice – and debates the implications of these very different mechanisms for democritization.  Girmachew Alemu Aneme then explores the types of institutional mechanisms that need to be in place in order to guarantee the non-repetition of the mass atrocities of the Red Terror.

In the final chapter, the editors focus on the trial and sentencing on 12 December 2006 of Mengistu Haile Mariam (in absentia) and other top officials.  They discuss the angry public response to the life sentence handed down to Mengistu – others of lower rank had been given the death penalty – and the on-going appeals process.  They conclude with some general observations for transitional justice theory based on the lessons of the Ethiopian Experience.

This collection is an enlightening read.  It provides the first comprehensive and detailed account of Ethiopia’s Red Terror trials and will be of interest to Scholars, academics, activists and policy makers concerned with human rights issues, transitional justice, conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 88-90]

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