(Agence France Presse) — ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Ethiopia’s exiled former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was sentenced to death Monday, oversaw the 1977-78 “Red Terror” when tens of thousands were tortured, murdered and disappeared.
Now 71 and living a comfortable life in exile in Zimbabwe, the man who came to be known as the Red Negus (“emperor” in Amharic) was convicted in December 2006, after a marathon trial, of genocide, homicide, illegal imprisonment and illegal confiscation of property.
The purge of politicians, intellectuals and other perceived foes came as his regime began trying to transform imperial Ethiopia with its ancient Christian heritage into a Soviet-style workers’ state.
Mengistu, a lieutenant colonel in the army, was a member of the Derg, the military junta which ran the country after the fall of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
Three years later he became head of the Marxist regime in a bloody coup which saw head of state General Teferi Bante assassinated.
Mengistu became the de facto ruler, running the cabinet and the military council, and instituted the Red Terror, which saw numerous arrests and thousands of killings across the Horn of Africa nation.
Already chief of the armed forces and secretary general of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE), Mengistu was in September 1987 officially confirmed president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
Seriously threatened from February 1991 by a coordinated offensive by the separatist Tigre People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe the following May.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, an old ally of Mengistu, offered him political asylum and has since refused to extradite him to Ethiopia. In 1996, he escaped an assassination bid in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.
Born in 1937 at Wallayata, Mengistu Haile Mariam became a career soldier like his father, graduating from the officer training college at Holetta in 1966 and doing a brief spell of further training in the United States.
After taking part in an uprising against Haile Selassie in 1960, he was a delegate in the armed forces coordinating committee at the time of the February 1974 revolution.
Many Ethiopians still remember Mengistu, with his dark skin and big moustache, haranguing crowds at Revolution, now Meskal, Square, in the heart of Addis Ababa, along with the interminable military parades he organised.
Considered as the brain behind the revolution and a leading member of the Derg from the start, Mengistu in seven months put an end to the world’s oldest surviving empire.
In his rise to power, he showed considerable political skills and was brutally intransigent regarding his opponents.
As well as the Red Terror, Mengistu and his former top aides were also accused of the murders of Haile Selassie and Orthodox Patriarch Abuna Tefelows.
Backed by the pro-Soviet socialist movement during a conflict with Somalia over the eastern Ogaden region, then faced with a nationalist rebellion in Eritrea, Mengistu signed an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1978 and created the Marxist-Leninist WPE in 1984.
He held the rotating presidency of the Addis-Ababa based Organisation of African Unity (today’s African Union) in 1983-84.
In May 1989, Mengistu crushed a coup attempt and executed 12 generals. The following year, he announced more liberal policies aimed at pulling Ethiopia out of economic disaster and civil war. He took accompanying steps to woo the West after renewing diplomatic ties with Israel.