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]

Commission of Inquiry: The Special Prosecution Process in Ethiopia by the Office of the Special Prosecutor

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.
Subsequent Developments:

  • 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.



Related Publications

The Red Sea Crisis Goes Beyond the Houthis

The Red Sea Crisis Goes Beyond the Houthis

Friday, July 19, 2024

The Red Sea is in crisis. At the center of the storm are Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have unleashed a wave of attacks on ships traversing one of the world’s most pivotal maritime straits, putatively in support of Hamas’s war against Israel. The Houthi gambit in the Red Sea is imposing serious costs on global trade, as did the problem of Somali piracy, which reached its peak in 2010. The United States and some of its allies have stepped in to militarily suppress the threat, bombing Houthi positions inside Yemen. But although this episode is illustrative of the difficulties of Red Sea security, the crisis extends far beyond the trouble emanating from Yemen.

Type: Analysis

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Taking Ethiopia-Eritrea Tensions Seriously

Taking Ethiopia-Eritrea Tensions Seriously

Friday, December 15, 2023

The historically fraught relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is deteriorating once again. A seemingly momentous peace deal that brought the two sides together in 2018 now appears to have been a brief interlude in a longer arc of enduring rivalry. The sources of recent tension include Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s public posturing around sea access and dynamics seeded by the 2018 peace deal itself. Neither side can afford escalation, but open conflict remains a possibility and even outcomes well short of direct hostilities — perhaps a return to the “no war, no peace” situation of preceding decades — would be disastrous for the two nations and the broader region.

Type: Analysis

Conflict Analysis & PreventionGlobal Policy

The Latest @ USIP: What’s Next for U.S. Engagement in the Horn of Africa?

The Latest @ USIP: What’s Next for U.S. Engagement in the Horn of Africa?

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Horn of Africa represents an area of strategic importance for the United States, and the current peace process in Ethiopia is an example of the positive role that U.S. engagement can have in the region. Ambassador Mike Hammer, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, discusses his meetings with USIP’s Red Sea Study Group, how the cessation of hostilities agreement in northern Ethiopia came to fruition, and the latest U.S. efforts to ensure a lasting peace in Ethiopia through humanitarian assistance, accountability for human rights violations and a host of other avenues for bringing stability back to the region.

Type: Blog

Peace Processes

The Latest @ USIP: Women’s Inclusion and Transitional Justice in Ethiopia

The Latest @ USIP: Women’s Inclusion and Transitional Justice in Ethiopia

Monday, April 24, 2023

During Ethiopia’s disastrous two-year civil conflict, women were subjected to countless acts of conflict-related sexual violence by security forces on both sides. Now that a peace process has begun, securing true transitional justice will require women’s participation and leadership throughout the negotiations. Filsan Abdi, founder director of the Horn Peace Institute, discusses her decision to resign from her prior position as Ethiopia’s minister of women, children and youth in protest of the violence, why women’s participation is so vital to the long-term success of peacebuilding and democracy in the Horn of Africa, and why the current peace process gives her hope despite its shortcomings.

Type: Blog

GenderPeace Processes

View All Publications