Former regime officials plead for clemency

Ethiopia’s human rights council has backed calls by jailed colleagues of former leader, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, to be allowed to apologise for the atrocities perpetrated during his rule.

Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, the president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, said public apology would be helpful. "There is quite a lot of hatred around this issue, and we think this is becoming more intense...we should clear the air," he said at a press conference in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Saturday.

His comments come after top officials being tried for genocide wrote to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi asking for "forgiveness" for crimes committed 30 years ago. "We plead to you, with due humility and respect, to accept our genuine request and to grant us a forum whereon we, on behalf of all those who stood on our side, and on our own behalf, can ask for forgiveness from our wronged compatriots," the letter said.

Mesfin said that the trials – which are now in their 10th year – should continue, but that a public apology would help the country overcome its bloody history. "These people are prepared to ask for forgiveness - not mercy or [for] the trials to be stopped, they just want to release what is in their conscience – to cleanse themselves," he said.

"Our position is also that the Ethiopian people need to do this as well," Mesfin added. He recommended that Ethiopia should adopt a system like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission to help the country come to terms with its past.

While no-one knows how many people Mengistu's Marxist regime killed in the 1970s during the nationwide purge of students, intellectuals and politicians, some experts estimate that tens of thousands of perceived government opponents were murdered. The US-based Human Rights Watch has described what was then called the Red Terror as "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa".

The 33 signatories to the letter include Fikreselase Wogderes, Mengistu's prime minister, and Fiseha Desta, his vice-president. Both face the death penalty if convicted. They and the other accused face 209 charges of crimes against humanity. Their trials opened in 1994 and are still continuing.

Rebels led by Meles Zenawi seized power in 1991, and Mengistu, who had ruled since 1974, fled into exile in Zimbabwe, where he lives. The new government immediately began planning trials for those responsible for the Red Terror, while rounding up the alleged perpetrators. Mengistu has never publicly responded to the charges brought against him and has no legal representation.

Copies of the letter were sent to US President George W. Bush, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former South African President Nelson Mandela. There has been no public response by Meles or his government to the letter, which was sent in August 2003.