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No Amnesty for War Criminals

War criminals _ Ethiopia
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Sebhat Nega (right). Graphics source: Social Media

By Worku Aberra

In a decision that has stunned the nation, the Ethiopian government on January 7 released from jail six of the captured leaders of the terrorist-designated TPLF (TPLF-6, henceforth), two individuals accused of terrorism, as well as some politicians and journalists. The decision to free the TPLF-6 and the alleged terrorists is politically irresponsible as it is morally indefensible.  

The decision to free the TPLF-6 is legally, morally, and politically objectionable. The TPLF has committed war crimes against the Ethiopian people, especially against the Afar and Amhara people. Thousands of lives have been lost; infrastructure, public assets, and private property worth billions of dollars have been destroyed and looted; hundreds of women, some very young and others very old, have been gang raped; religious places have been desecrated. The TPLF-6, like all criminals, deserve their just deserts that is commensurate with their crimes, retributive for the victims, deterrent for society, and restorative for the perpetrators. Their release violates these aspects of administering justice.

The Amnesty is all the more troubling when we consider that the TPLF has not stopped its war against Ethiopia nor abandoned its political objectives. The TPLF has vowed to continue waging its war until it realizes its political objectives: the overthrowal of the government; the destruction of the Ethiopian army; the creation of the greater independent Tigray, “Abay Tigray”; and the disintegration of Ethiopia. Given the TPLF’s obduracy, the decision boggles the mind.

The release of the TPLF-6 from jail on January 7, on Coptic Christmas day, evokes some sort of clemency or pardon by the government on religious grounds, but when a clemency or a pardon is granted, the convicted criminal accepts full responsibility for his/her criminal act and expresses remorse for the pain inflicted on the victims. The government has not told us if the TPLF-6 have admitted their guilt or expressed their remorsefulness. As far as public knows, since the TPLF-6 has done neither, it is immortal for the government to grant amnesty to a TPLF leadership that has shown no remorse for the TPLF’s war crimes, has taken no responsibility for its role in the war, and has not renounced the destruction of Ethiopia.  Forgiveness, at a minimum, requires the admission of guilt and an apology to the victims by the perpetrator.  We haven’t heard anything from the TPLF-6.

Gross political interference in the judicial process

The release of the TPLF-6 is legally unconscionable. On January 5, the Prime Minister, in his assessment of the first 100 days of the new government, stated that his government needs to make progress in many areas, including improvement in the judiciary branch. He stated his concerns about how judges often pass judgement on the basis of irrelevant factors that are outside the law, but then two days later his government intervenes in the judicial process by freeing from jail individuals that it has accused of serious crimes against the state and the people of Ethiopia whose cases are impending in court.

This is political interference in the judicial process, unacceptable to all who uphold respecting the rule of law. The Prime Minister aspires to lead Ethiopia through a democratic transition, and in a democracy political leaders refrain from making statements about cases that are pending in court for fear of influencing the judgment, let alone release individuals before the court has rendered its decision. It’s authoritarian regimes that interfere in judicial matters.

At a press conference on January 8, the Attorney General stated that the government freed the TPLF-6 because of their advanced age, bad health, and limited role in the decision to launch the war against Ethiopia. Each of these points are unpersuasive. The age of an adult is irrelevant in determining whether the individual should stand for trial or not, as the experiences of other countries demonstrate. In Germany, in 2020, a 93-year old man, a former SS guard, was convicted for his Nazi crimes. Similarly, in 2021, a 100-year old SS guard was charged with complicity in Nazi crimes. Neither advanced age nor frail health absolves an individual from facing justice.

The Attorney General’s assertion that the TPLF-6 were peripheral in the decision to launch the war against Ethiopia is inconsistent with the government’s own criminal charges against them and the behaviour of the TPLF-6 members. The government claims to have gathered enough evidence to convict the captured TPLF leadership for serious crimes, including for crimes of sedition. When the ENDF entered Mekele on November 28, 2020, the TPLF-6 fled the city and hid in different places, but had they been innocent, they would have stayed in Mekele, as hundreds of thousands of innocent Tigrayans did.  Sebhat Nega, the leading founder of the TPLF, has been credited as the main brain trust behind the plot to overthrow the government and to balkanize Ethiopia. The TPLF-6 were not innocent bystanders.

The Attorney General explains that individuals can be freed from jail though clemency, pardon, and the withdrawal of charges, and goes on to distinguish the subtle legal differences between the three forms of amnesty. In the case of the TPLF-6, he affirms that the government dropped the charges against them. For most Ethiopians, the legal distinction is academic, the theoretical nuance, irrelevant: it is a distinction without a meaning because the criminals have been freed for political reasons that have not yet been explained to the public, before the court had a chance to determine their innocence or guilt. Such interference in the judicial process signals authoritarian impulses.

The third reason that the Attorney General gave for justifying the amnesty was that the government decision will contribute towards national reconciliation, but the TPLF leadership has continued its war on Ethiopia, militarily in the Amhara and Afar regions and politically in the rest of the world. There is no sign that the TPLF has accepted the extended olive branch. It is most likely that when the TPLF-6 return to Mekele, unless they are forbidden to do so, they will receive the usual hero’s welcome, replete with parades, street dances, and drum beating.

They will dutifully resume their agitation about “the struggle for the survival of Tigray”.  The release will not bring about peace; it will only heighten the conflict. The Attorney General says that the TPLF-6 were released from jail for humanitarian reasons, but there cannot be humanitarian justification for freeing individuals who have committed crimes against humanity.

The timing of the decision could not have been any worse. The people of Ethiopia, particularly those in the Afar and Amhara region, are still suffering from the agonies inflicted upon them by the TPLF. The wounds have not healed; the destroyed public and private property have not been rebuilt; the victims of the TPLF gang rapes have not recovered from their physical pains and psychological trauma; those who lost loved ones are still in mourning; the TPLF is still killing Ethiopians. To release the criminals at this time, is to be tone deaf; it rubs salt into the wound.

The political ramifications

The political ramifications of the amnesty are not insignificant. It emboldens the TPLF and its surrogate the OLF-Shenay to pursue their terrorist acts. These groups will not view the amnesty as a gesture of goodwill, an olive branch for peace, or a step towards reconciliation, but as a victory they won through their armed struggle. It could encourage them to intensify their struggle to achieve their short-term objective of sharing political power with the government and their long-term goal of dismantling Ethiopia.

The decision will anger the people of Afar and Amhara, the main victims of the TPLF’s war crimes.  Their property destroyed, their dignity violated, their humanity denied, their people killed; their sisters, daughters, and mothers gang raped; their places of worship desecrated by the TPLF, the people of Afar and Amhara may rightfully feel betrayed by their government. How can they continue fighting against TPLF aggression, when the government is releasing the criminals that they helped to capture?

The amnesty will not bode well with the rest of the Ethiopian people either. With the arrest of the key TPLF leaders who epitomize corruption, embezzlement, and tyranny in the previous 27 years, Ethiopians were hoping that finally the law will prevail, the criminals will be held accountable, and that justice will be served, but their hopes were dashed by the decision to release the criminals from jail. Their trust in the justice system and their faith in the political judgement of the current government have been shattered.  It will take a long time to repair the damage.

The Ethiopian diaspora, even those who don’t support the government, stood by it in its conflict with the TPLF. Out of their duty to Ethiopia, they have contributed diplomatically, financially, and politically in the struggle against the TPLF’s war on Ethiopia, but this amnesty will enrage many people. Some may be reticent to pursue their commitment to the war effort; others may embrace the numerous conspiracy theories about the true intentions of the Abiy government that are widely circulating among certain segments of Ethiopians; still others may withdraw from engaging in Ethiopia’s political affairs all together. The impact of the decision on the diaspora community is considerable.

The US and the UN have hailed the amnesty, but this decision alone will not satisfy US demands. (I have discussed US demands in detail elsewhere). To avoid further US sanctions and to access funding from multinational organizations, namely from the IMF and the World Bank, the US government has insisted that the government release of the TPLF leaders, among other demands. It is more than pure coincidence that the prisoners were released while Jeffrey Feltman was in Addis Ababa talking with the Prime Minister.

It is reasonable to assume that the US pressure may have resulted in the release of the war criminals, but this will not stop the US from insisting that its other demands be fulfilled. It would appear that the decision will reward Feltman, who was in his last trip to Ethiopia as the special envoy to the Horn Africa. He would have something to deliver to Anthony Blinken, and yet it is unlikely that Blinken will refrain from insisting the other remaining US demands be met or from issuing more imperial orders.

If the amnesty is because of US intervention in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, as most suspect it is, it indicates that the Ethiopian government has capitulated to US pressure, at least partially, despite the gathering momentum of the international “no more” movement against US interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia and other countries. The decision undermines the movement.

Many Ethiopians were jubilant when the Prime Minister told parliament on November 30, 2020, that Ethiopia’s sovereignty is not for sale, but this amnesty that validates US imperial power has disappointed most Ethiopians. It looks like Ethiopia has submitted to US hegemonic intimidation.

The decision to release the war criminals and the alleged terrorist activists from jail doesn’t augur well for peace, national reconciliation, and national unity in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is in danger of falling into instability for an extended time because of the imprudent decision of the government.

Worku Aberra is a professor economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.


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  1. Concerning the release of the aging and frail fascists of the TPLF, various opinions and considerations are aired out. Generally, the release on what ever grounds humanitarian or health, is premature and would cost the Abiy government public confidence. It will be read by the warmongering and hostile TPLF leaders who are at large as victory and a cause for more mobilization and attacks. It sends the wrong signal and further sheds doubts on the Abiy government`s handling of the war. Divisive decisions such as this should be thoroughly examined.

  2. Even though I firmly believe of recon and peace settlement are the right path, I believe this abrupt decision taken by Abiy to release these folks without putting some caveats, safeguards and quid pro quo mechanism in place is not prudent at all . Especially, the release of combatant actors and on light of devastating state of the Afar and Amhara regions’ civilians including the wholesale devastation of their lives, brutal rapes and properties destruction. There must be serious questions, answers and reflections as to why all these happened,, how and who to be accountable at least for public knowledge and other potential remedies for victims through either fair justice, moral, material support.

  3. PM Abiy, Cancel or Leave!!!!!!!!!!
    Such decision is reprehensible and must be rescinded. What on earth could explain such gross violation of trust and constitutional judicial procedures unless it is a political motivation to cause more death and destruction to Amhara and Afar people? Why the militaries, militias and Fano sacrifices is wasted in vain only Abiy by himself is the decision maker to pardon the top Terrorist leader and his subordinates that are responsible for many crimes?
    Such person should not be called a leader but a middleman that deserves legal measures, public outrage and demand to explain his position and what exactly he has done behind closed doors.
    Abiy’s position is to protect and defend the country not to sell his people in secret behind doors, making deals with Terrorist supporters, betray and jock on those who sacrificed their precious lives and blood. So may peoples life and families are suffering because of his inabilities to stop the war when he fully could stop. His arrogance, disrespect and ignorance has passed limits and people who brought him there are dropping him like a hot potato.

  4. Peace and reconciliation and financial and judicial remedies for victims are all necessary and a must but with the right people. However pardoning or dropping out court case for 6 stanch TPLF fascists caught after so much search and human and financial cost is a whole different subject..
    Those so called frail and old TPLF criminals were all found hiding from a steep mountain top, difficult even for a monkey to climb up and carried down by putting the brave army lives in danger. Those are not frail and old TPLF goons that deserved freedom. This decision must not go on because it has no public support and broken publics trust and opens up other opportunities for others undesired to exploit the situation.

  5. Clemency to opponents is deeply engrained in our tradition. Since I started reading more and more about the history of the old country in the last two decades I have come across accounts where victors pardoning their deadly vanquished rivals. They did that because it was the proper thing to do for the good of their people and the country. Didn’t the late Emperor Haile pardon those who were caught planning to kill him even though many in his inner circle furiously opposed his decision? That is called magnanimous in both religions. It was up to the pardoned to straighten up or else. Pardoning does not mean acquittal in a court of law and immunity for life but rather a step taken by the rulers for the good of the country. Now it is up to Jawar, Eskinder and their company including those who were captured in the battlefield to do a thorough soul searching and respond in grace. They should never think they are the tough guys and the government is the wimp. ‘I am a de facto 2nd government or I can train thousands of the youth in the capital to defend Addis from encroaching Oromos’ ain’t gonna fly. Fantasizing about being in prison will not work anymore. This is not just a game between a victor and the vanquished but a time to ponder wisely. The life of the country and the lives of millions innocent citizens are at stake. It is not a weekend pick up soccer game in a backyard. It is not funny, okay!

  6. I pray that the Afar and Amhara people be strong and firm – the war is still not over. tplf goons will continue their killing and raping (and the release of Sebhat and his helper Jawar is a great OK sign) until they destroy Amhara and dismantle Ethiopia. The only option is to join the Amhara Militia, Special Forces and Fano. Join these courageous people who are fighting against tplf looters armed to the teeth with weapons and money stolen from the Ethiopia people for the last 30 years. Join Amhara and Afar and change the course of the game. Do not trust Abiy again…….

  7. The way things suddenly develops in seconds doesn’t look good for Amhara and Afar who are affected by this long war and the government that is in denial as WAR is NOT OVER. Afar and Amhara people, fighters including the Fano and leaders must be consulted and involved in every discussion to be had by the movement before coming to decision because they are the ONLY ONE that suffered and continue to suffer!!!

    The way the government portrays as war is over is the secret deals to release war criminals who deserve life in prison or executions by electric chair sentences. Also giving military medal of honors even going to a great length to add Field Marshal award. Granting pardon and awarding medal of harbor are procedures done after winning a war. But the war has never been over or won!!! Yet Abiy’s government is in business as usual mode and throwing lies as usual by putting Amhara and Afar people in more danger for his political gain and gamble.
    I hope Afar and Amhara people are prepared to protect themselves, never agree to disarm and to trust the lies and deceit’s flowing from Abiy’s mouth.

    When it is high time to arm Afar and Amhara people the government is ordering to disarm them while ordering the Army to sit still. In the meantime TPLF is throwing bombs, murder all child and young Raya Amhara males and reinvades Amhara and Afar regions. A
    At the same time OLF Shene with all its modern weapons and open field trainings are not touched or even discussed as a threat to Amhara living in Oromia without representation and systematic ethnic cleansing massacre by Oromia administration OLF sympathizers.

  8. Ittu Aba Farda
    I kept reading your inconsistent and untrue comments. Your motive and aim is in question. Need to study history before commenting. You are confusing Apple with Oranges. There are huge differences between what Emperor Hailesellasie did from PM Abiy’s.
    Emperor Haile pardoned people who thought were going to bring a better democratic government.
    No one that vowed to destroy the country and who massacred, raped. tortured traitors..


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