Commission of Inquiry: The Special Prosecution Process by the Office of the Special Prosecutor
Duration: 1993 – 2007(?)
Charter: Proclamation No. 22/1992
Commissioners: more than 400 staff at peak
Report: [Public report on first year of activities]
Dates of Operation: 1993 – 2007 [unconfirmed date of closure]
Background: In 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam led a rebellion that overthrew the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled Ethiopia for decades. Mengistu’s repressive regime was in power for more than seventeen years, perpetrating serious human rights abuses against dissenters and political opponents. This divided the country into ethnic and political factions and precipitated a long civil war.
In May 1991, rebels led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the Mengistu regime. The Office of the Special Prosecutor was created by the Transitional Government in 1992.
Charter: Proclamation to Provide for the Establishment of the Office of the Special Prosecutor 22/1992, August 8, 1992.
Mandate: The Office of the Special Prosecutor’s mandate was to “conduct investigations and institute proceedings in respect of any person having committed or responsible for the commission of an offense by abusing his position in the party, the government or mass organization under the Dergue-WPE regime”. The Dergue was the military junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and the end of the 1980s and WPE stands for Workers’ Party of Ethiopia. The Office of the Special Prosecutor was directly accountable to the Prime Minister.
Commissioners and Structure: The Chief of the Special Public Prosecutors and the Deputy Chief were appointed by the Council of Representatives upon recommendation by the Prime Minister and presentation by the President. The Special Public Prosecutor had to be an Ethiopian citizen. According to the government, the Office of the Special Prosecutor hired more than four hundred individuals, including foreign advisors in the mid-1990s.
Report: The Office of the Special Prosecutor released a report in February 1994, summarizing its work during its first year of operation, which is available in Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. Vol. 3, Laws, Rulings, and Reports, edited by Neil J. Kritz and published by United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995, pgs 559-575.
The summary of the special prosecutor’s first year of operation stated that Mengistu Haile Mariam presided over every major policy decision made from 1974 to 1991.
- Crimes including summary executions, forced disappearances, and torture were carried out systematically on a large scale as a matter of state policy.
According to the summary, “the Office has ten times more evidence than needed to successfully prosecute several of the detained and many of the exiles for serious criminal offenses.”
The Office together with the courts suggested establishing a Public Defender Office in Ethiopia to provide legal aid.
- In 1995, a new constitution entered into force, setting up a federal system, and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Article 20 of the new constitution provided for the establishment of the suggested Public Defender Office. In 2000, there were 13 public defenders at the federal level and additional regional public defenders’ offices.
- Prosecutions of crimes committed under the Mengitsu regime are ongoing within the National Court system of Ethiopia. More than 1,569 decisions have been handed down, with at least a thousand resulting in convictions.
Mengistu Haile Mariam was found guilty of acts of genocide and given a life sentence (in absentia) in an Ethiopian court in December 2006. The Ethiopian Supreme Court changed his sentence to death in May 2008. Mengitsu is living in Zimbabwe, however, where the government refuses to extradite him.
In one case, three Ethiopian women who were tortured were awarded $500,000 USD each in the Unites States federal court in Atlanta in August 1993. The defendant, Kelbesse Negewo, was granted political asylum in the United States in 1987, but then he was extradited to Ethiopia in 2006 to serve a life sentence for murder.
Special Notes: The Office operated with a total budget amounting to more than $200,000 USD. One of the victims, Hirut Abebe-Jiri, seeks to preserve the historical records in cooperation with the University of North Dakota in the United States.
- "An Archive of Murders Past: A Brave Woman Seeks Justice and Historical Recognition for Past Wrongs." The Economist, September 27, 2007, sec. Middle East & Africa. Available at http://www.economist.com/world/mideast-africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9867981 (accessed August 7, 2008).
- Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. "Justice in Perspective - Africa - Ethiopia." Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Available at http://www.justiceinperspective.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=43 (accessed June 30, 2008).
- Ethiopia and Office of the Special Prosecutor. Letter Dated 28 Jan 1994 from the Permanent Representative of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office at Geneva Addressed to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. Geneva: UN, 1994. Available at http://unbisnet.un.org:8080/ipac20/ipac.jsp?session=12DR09683G704.99772&profile=bibga&uri=full=3100001~!338421~!1&ri=1&aspect=alpha&menu=search&source=~!horizon (accessed July 3, 2008).
- Hayner, Priscilla B. "Fifteen Truth Commissions-1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study." Human Rights Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1994): 597-655.
- Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Human Rights Watch/Africa. Ethiopia: Reckoning Under the Law. New York, N.Y.: Human Rights Watch/Africa, 1994. Available at http://hrw.org/reports/pdfs/e/ethiopia/ethiopia94d.pdf (accessed June 30, 2008).
- The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. Ethiopia : Legal and Judicial Sector Assessment, 2004. Available at http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2005/01/25/000009486_20050125105037/Rendered/PDF/313850Ethiopia1L1JSA1Final.pdf (accessed June 24, 2009).
- "Mengistu Defends 'Red Terror'." BBC News, December 28, 1999. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/581098.stm (accessed June 30, 2008).
- Nwanko, Clement. The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia. University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Available at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/africa/ethiopia.htm (accessed June 30, 2008).
- Rice, Andrew. "The Long Interrogation." The New York Times, June 4, 2006. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/magazine/04torturer.html?ei=5088&en=f88ce4083b9ca61d&ex=1307073600&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=print (accessed August 7, 2008).
- Summary Record of the 28th Meeting, Held at the Palais Des Nations, Geneva, on Thursday, 17 February 1994: Commission on Human Rights, 50th Session. Geneva: UN, 1996. Available at http://unbisnet.un.org:8080/ipac20/ipac.jsp?session=12DR09683G704.99772&profile=bibga&uri=full%3D3100001%7E%21404027%7E%210&aspect=alpha&menu=search&source=~!horizon&view=items&ri=3&staffonly=&&aspect=alpha&menu=search&ri=3 (accessed July 3, 2008).
- Trial Watch. "Mingistu Haile Mariam." Track Impunity Always (TRIAL). Available at www.trial-ch.org/en/resources/trial-watch/trial-watch/profile.html (accessed February 9, 2011).