Posts filed under 'Ethiopia'

1937: Desta Damtew, Haile Selassie’s son

1 comment February 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Ethiopian prince Desta Damtew — the son-in-law of Emperor Haile Selassie — was captured by the Italian troops occupying his country, and summarily executed.

An aristocrat who married Selassie’s eldest daughter, the Ras* Desta Damtew (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) became governor of the southern Sidamo Province upon his father-in-law’s ascent to the Ethiopian throne in 1930.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.

Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”

On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.

While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned untold numbers of humans to punitive death with a dread order:

Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.

For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**

Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.

The Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey penned a poetic eulogy for our man:

The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.

Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.

Ras Desta left a number of children. One of them, Iskinder Desta, became a Rear Admiral in the Ethiopian navy and was among the officials slaughtered in the Derg’s 1974 “Black Saturday” purge.

* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.

** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

1541: Cristóvão da Gama, Portuguese crusader in Ethiopia

Add comment August 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1541, Cristóvão da Gama — “the most chivalrous soldier of a chivalrous age” — was beheaded in Ethiopia.

This moment was the apex of Lisbon’s empire-building, most vividly symbolized by Cristovao’s famous dad, explorer Vasco de Gama. In the Age of Discovery, Caravels bore Portuguese colors from Brazil to Japan.

Alas, Portugal’s global maritime empire of coastal colonies and remote ports was immediately menaced by rival powers like the also at-its-apex Ottoman Empire.

Young Cristovao would be ground up in this conflict whose mixture of geopolitics and sectarianism overtly smacked of those old-time Crusades.

After a jaunt to India in the train of his older brother, appointed the Portuguese governor of India, Cristavao was sidetracked on a return voyage for an intervention on the Christian side in a raging local war. For Europeans who for generations had trafficked in the vague and fantastical rumors of mythical Abyssinian ruler “Prester John”, putting a thumb on the scale for Ethiopian Christians against the rampant Arabs must have been nigh irresistible.

Let’s listen in.

Joao III and his government, faced with mounting debts as the costs of military operations in the East steadily grew, were now forced to re-evaluate their global commitments … the new viceroy, Estevao da Gama, was ordered to destroy the Turkish fleet in Suez …

Estevao da Gama’s raid into the Red Sea became one of the best remembered episodes in the history of the Portuguese Estado da India. The fleet assembled at Massawa on the African shore and then proceeded to Suakin which was burnt and plundered. Part of the fleet then returned to Massawa while the rest sailed on to Suez where the Turkish ships proved to be securely based and inaccessible. On the shore of Sinai, as close to Jerusalem as the Portuguese were ever to come, Estevao da Gama enacted some of the rituals of crusading chivalary and made a number of knights before returning to Massawa. Meanwhile, Dom Joao de Castro, who accompanied the expedition, used the time to produce his famous guide to the Red Sea, the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, complete with the meticulous drawings of the ports and anchorages, a masterpiece of Portuguese Renaissance geography and science.


One of Joao de Castro’s drawings. (Source, a Portuguese pdf)

Meanwhile the Portuguese at Massawa had suffered extreme privations and a hundred of them had deserted, having been persuaded by [untrustworthy Potuguese-descended Ethiopian ambassador Joao] Bermudes of the richness and wealth of the interior. Their fate was to be captured and massacred by Ahmed Gran. Estevao da Gama now dispatched a force of four hundred soldiers under the command of his brother, Cristovao da Gama, into the interior to assist the Ethiopian king. Cristovao da Gama advanced from the coast with a force much the same size as that which Cortez had led into Mexico in 1519. He had with him horses, arquebuses and eight small cannon. His first objective was to link up with the fugitive Ethiopian king and his followers, but da Gama got separated from his supplies and was forced to fight a superior Somali force supported by Turkish mercenaries. The result was catastrophe. The small Portuguese army was badly mauled and da Gama himself fled wounded from the battlefield and was taken prisoner.

The capture of the viceroy’s brother, son of the great admiral, carried with it huge importance for the Turks. After being ritually humiliated (his beard being set on fire and his face buffeted with the shoes of his negro servant) Cristovao da Gama was beheaded.* For the Portuguese this was a disaster, the symbolic significance of which far transcended the military consequences of the defeat. However, the Christian church had long experience of turning catastrophe into triumph and, soon after the news of Cristovao da Gama’s death reached the outside world, rumours of miracles began to circulate.** Da Gama became one of the first martyrs of the new church overseas which in a hundred years of expansion had had all too few heroic deeds to celebrate.

After the death of their commander fewer than two hundred of the original army survived, but they were able to meet up with the Christian Ethiopian forces and, when the next campaigning season started in 1542, the combined army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslims, a defeat which took on a decisive complexion when it was realised that the leader of the jihad, Ahmed Gran, had been killed in the battle.

Da Gama’s expedition had been mounted from the resources of the official empire and had been commanded by one of the leading fidalgos of the Estado da India. However, few of da Gama’s soldiers returned to India Instead they settled in Ethiopia and married Ethiopian women, establishing a ‘Portuguese’ community that mirrored the ‘Portuguese’ communities in Aythia, Bengal, Kongo and elsewhere where soldiers had offered their military expertise to local rulers an had been content to settle and make their fortures far removed from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Crown.

Although da Gama’s own end was unfortunate, his surviving force’s exploits on a side badly pressed could arguably be considered the decisive factor enabling Christianity to survive in Ethiopia’s highlands interior. Prester John would have been proud.

* “I write what I heard, it may well be that it was thus, for all that is barbarous and cruel about the Moorish king can be believed. The body, after death, was dismembered and sent to various places … because once when Granha was speaking with Dom Christovao, he asked him: ‘If you had me in your power, as I have you, what would you do to me?’ Dom Christovao, with great resolution and freedom replied, ‘If I had you in my power, I would have you killed, the head I would send to one place and the quarters I would distribute to other places’ (naming them, but I do not recall them). And Granha, they say that it was because he heard this, scattered the body to various places.”

** “Directly they cut off his head, God worked a great and manifest miracle through it, which was, that in the place where they slew him a fountain of running water gushed out, which had never been seen before: its water, through the goodness and power of God, gives sight to the blind, and cures those ill of other diseases. It appears that this miracle is like the one that God did in Rome for His Apostle St. Paul. The remains of the body of D. Christovao smell sweetly, giving forth so delightful an odour, that it seems rather of heaven than of earth.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Power,Religious Figures,Soldiers,Somalia,Wartime Executions

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1868: The native prisoners of Emperor Tewodros II

Add comment April 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1868, on the eve of his rout at the hands of a British expeditionary force, the frustrated Emperor Tewodros II had hundreds of prisoners executed en masse.

Our setting is the 1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia, “one of the most expensive affairs of honour in history.” And it all got started from a bad experience with technical support.

Tewodros — generally known to the Europeans as Theodore — had risen from a humble station to the throne of Abyssinia, but by the 1860s held it but tenuously against various rival warlords. Tewodros lodged appeals for aid with a number of European powers, including the British, who evidently took the emperor’s letter for Queen Victoria and stuck it indefinitely in a file called “Pending”.

After two years without an answer, Tewodros took hostage the British consul Charles Duncan Cameron, a missionary named Henry Stern (whose unflattering report of Tewodros’s mean origins particularly enraged the monarch), and other Europeans.


Illustration of the hostages from Henry Stern’s The Captive Missionary.

And then he took hostage the Ethiopian sent to negotiate their release.

He wasn’t “Pending” any longer.

Gaze not into Abyssinia

Tewodros, perhaps, had depended on the notoriously treacherous Ethiopian highlands to protect him from any effective reprisal. But when the Brits decided in 1867 to let men with guns resolve the dispute, they spared no expense at all.

Months of planning and millions of pounds were poured into the operation, which landed 13,000 soldiers and 40,000 animals organized by the Bombay Army.

“For a total cost of about £9,000,000,” writes Harold Marcus in a biography of another former Tewodros hostage, the future Emperor Menelik II, “Napier set out to defeat a man who could muster only a few thousand troops and had long ago ceased to be Ethiopia’s leader in anything but title.”

The forces converged on Tewodros’s last stronghold, Magdala, with the mercurial king refusing repeated demands of the invader to release his European captives.

Angrily refusing, at least according to the accounts of the hostages who were the subject of all this … and whose accounts have just enough consciousness of the privilege their own skin has given them as they witness these bloodlettings.

On April 8, the king put to death seven of the native prisoners in his train. These prisoners comprised generally people on the political outs with Tewodros, adherents of once-rebellious chiefs and the families of those adherents. It was no mean thing to slaughter a few of them arbitrarily.

But much worse was to come the following day, when the hunted emperor espied the British advance guard reconnoitering his position.

According to a report by European hostage W.F. Prideaux in the May 21, 1868 London Times, the Emperor

had seen the British troops descending the Bashilo, and had remarked among them four elephants and some white animals, which we surmised to be Berbera sheep. A short time afterwards a friend of ours (for we had a few friends at Magdala) … implored us to keep within our tents, for the King was in a fearful passion, and was then issuing an order to kill all his native prisoners, who were confined in a few houses a couple of hundred yards off. The repeated discharge of firearms, which we heard soon afterwards, confirmed the sad story, and it was with many misgivings that we asked ourselves, “What next?” At dusk, however, the King returned, and we returned to our tents comparatively at our ease. From what I have heard it appears that the King rushed down mad with rage and arackee, and calling out one of the prisoners hacked him to pieces with his own sword. Another speedily met the same fate. The third was a boy about ten years of age. His youth and innocence (for it was his father who had been the offender) were no protection. He was mangled in the same way as the two others. The cutting and slashing went on in this manner for some time, when the King, finding this mode of execution too slow for his impatient spirit, ordered out the musketeers. The remainder were then quickly shot down, and thrown over the low cliff, the force of the shock in several cases opening the chains of the wretched victims. Those whose quivering limbs showed any signs of life were fired on from above till the murderous work was completed.

The account of the Rev. Stern:

[W]e were suddenly startled by the sound of an intermittent musketry. … The rattle of musketry blended with the yells of despair, and the shouts of rage fell, however, with an ominous and appalling horror on our ears. “What is the matter?” I inquired of my neighbour. “Hist,” was the response, “the king is killing all the prisoners.” These terrible words diffused an aguish chill through my very heart. … The sun had already disappeared from the horizon, and twilight spread a dismal, dusky hue over the scene around, and still the firing continued unabated. With night it gradually diminished, and then only isolated shots reverberated across the panic-stricken camp.

The slaughter lasted about three hours, and during that interval three hundred and seven human beings* were, unwarned, and perhaps unprepared, hurled into eternity. Some of the prisoners did not unresistingly yield to their woeful doom. One, Immer Ali, a native of Ferga, near the Tzana Lake, formerly a chief of consideration in his province, in spite of hand and foot chains, with a convulsive grasp dragged his executioner towards the precipice over which he was to be hurled. The hangman, who dreaded the doom which he intended to inflict on his fellow man, shouted for help. On hearing the cry the tyrant, tiger-like, sprang forward and with his gory sword literally hacked the man to pieces.

And to hear Stern tell it, it was by dint of nothing but great fortune — or in his view, divine providence — that saved the British hostages from joining them.

One victim after another lay writhing and quivering in the last pangs at the foot of the dizzy precipice, and still the tyrant’s rage was un-appeased. “Bring the white men, and let their blood flow, mingled with that of my own subjects,” was the order that fell from his lips. Already, we were informed, whole bands of ruffians stood prepared to seize the intended prey, when several chiefs, no friends of the foreign captives, stepped forward, and requested that our execution might be deferred till next day. “Your Majesty,” they respectfully remarked, “the white men do not deserve the easy death of the sword and bullet; no, keep them till to-morrow, and then let the slow torture of a flaming hut put an end to their existence.” “You are right,” was the response.

Since the next day was Good Friday, the Christian Tewodros, “though a perfect fiend and coarse blasphemer, repaired, from a superstitious impulse, at a very early hour to church,” Stern says. The decisive British attack began later that day, and would end with the un-executed hostages liberated, and Tewodros taking his own life rather than fall captive.

Among the spoils of war was the crown of the dead emperor, which in 1925 King George V would personally present to Haile Selassie.

* The provenance of the very precise figure of 307 is not apparent in Stern’s account; presumably, he knew through his friendly contacts (of from relieving the boredom of captivity in recreational head-counting) the overall number of prisoners beforehand.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Ethiopia,Execution,History,Hostages,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Precipitated,Put to the Sword,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Executioners,History,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1936: Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa, Ethiopian royalty

Add comment December 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Italian forces consolidating control of occupied Ethiopia mopped up a couple of royal relatives who had resisted a bit too long.

Brothers Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa had briefly become, with the flight to exile of their ally Haile Selassie, symbolic leaders of Ethiopia’s domestic resistance to Mussolini’s imperialism.

Along with another brother, these sons of Ras Kassa mounted an abortive July 1936 attack on Addis Ababa, precipitating a furious Italian response.

The rebels were hunted to their retreat: the other brother was caught in a cave and summarily executed, which must have been at the back of Aberra and Asfawossen’s mind when they surrendered under a pledge of safe conduct.

‘Now I tell you to surrender’, wrote Graziani, ‘and I assure you nothing will happen to you. Why do you want to die uselessly?’

Only his cousins had remained with Dejaz Aberra: Mesfin Sileshi and the two younger men, Lij Merid Mangasha and Lij Abiye Abebe. They suspected Italian treachery. ‘If you want to be killed’, said Mesfin, ‘shall I kill you?’ …

The exact sequence of the events that followed is difficult to disentangle … Aberra and Asfawossen finally decided to submit. Aberra however sent his wife and baby son away with Mesfin and the two cousins, a last-minute concession to their pleas and threats.

A letter was sent up to General [Ruggero] Tracchia who had now occupied Fikke:

“To General Tracchia

“As you have assured me in your letter ot me that our lives will be spared, we shall assemble our armies and receive you by peaceful parade in a place called Bidigon.

“Aberra Kassa”

Ras Hailu in person led Aberra and Asfawossen to General Tracchia’s camp. While they were in the tent drinking coffee with the General, the men of their escort were disarmed, apparently without difficulty, and taken away (they were released the next morning). A group or carabinieri entered the tent and arrested the two brothers. It was 21 December, three days after Ras Imru had surrendered. At 7 p.m. the men in the escort heard a volley of shots in the centre of the town.

Tracchia sent a laconic cable to Graziani: ‘Dejaz Aberra and brother shot dusk in piazza of Fikke’. Graziani sent a cable to Lessona (Italian link) repeating Tracchia’s message and adding ‘Situation Salale liquidated’.

This reference to the Salale or Selale branch of the Ethiopian royal family was not entirely correct, however.

Not liquidated was the youngest brother, Asrate Kassa, who had escaped to exile and would return with Haile Selassie’s post-Mussolini government. Asrate ultimately qualified for these dolorous pages himself, however, as one of the victims of the 1974 Derg purge.

Of more immediate concern for Graziani and his ilk: Abera Kassa’s widow Kebedech Seyoum (French link) legendarily rose from childbirth after learning of her husband’s execution to become one of the Ethiopian resistance’s greatest military leaders. She’s a national hero in Ethiopia … and there’s also a Laboratorio Femminista Kebedech Seyoum in Rome, dedicated to the study of ant-fascist women.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1996: Ebbisaa Addunyaa, extrajudicially executed

1 comment August 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Oromo singer Ebbissaa Addunyaa was slain in his Addis Ababa home.

He “appeared to have been extrajudicially executed on suspicion of supporting the OLF,” according to Amnesty International. “No investigations were known to have taken place into allegations of torture, ”disappearance” or extrajudicial execution.”

“Extrajudicial execution” is a category challenge for these pages; Ebbisaa Addunyaa was not tried for anything, never mind convicted. His “execution” was a close cousin to simple murder … but a murder carried out by state security forces, targeting him specifically, and acting, if not under color of law, at least with legal impunity.

Ebbisaa and his friend Tana Wayessa

were at Ebbisaa’s home … north of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, when gunmen burst in. Eyewitnesses claim the bodies were dragged from the house and put in a Land Rover with a government license plate. The security men, who carried out the murders, first cleared the street. Residents who looked out of their houses after the gunfire were told to get back indoors. The bodies were recovered [the] next day from the morgue at the Menelik II hospital.

All this took place in the turbulent 1990s wake of the collapsed Derg dictatorship. An initial multiparty post-Derg coalition government had included the Oromo Liberation Front — an organization upholding the rights of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group — but the OLF soon withdrew from the coalition.

Ebbisaa was an OLF cadre who used his musical gifts for advocacy, and became a target when the outlawed OLF was forced underground.

A United Nations “Special Rapporteur” monitors “Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions” for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Many of the Special Rapporteur’s reports dating back to the 1990s are available on the website of NYU’s Project on Extrajudicial Executions, and the 1997 country report (pdf) for Ethiopia reveals that Ebbisaa’s execution/assassination/murder was only one in a pattern.

The Special Rapporteur transmitted the following allegations of violations of the right to life concerning 16 identified persons and 13 unidentified persons: Ahmed Good Abdi, Ahmed Sanay Farah, Ahmed Sangaab and Hassan Ahmed Sagal, reportedly arrested and killed on 8 August 1996 in Toon-Ceeley by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Ebissa Addunya, a singer and musician, and Tana Wayessa, reportedly shot and killed on 30 August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian security forces in the former’s house in Addis Ababa; 4 unidentified persons reportedly killed on 8 August 1996 in Gabababo; Awal Idire, aged 16, Awal Sani, aged 13, Badiri Shaza, aged 12, and Usen Kalu, aged 12, reportedly killed on 20 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces because they had the initials of the Oromo Liberation Front tattooed on their hands; Mohamed Arabi Hirsi, Abdi Mohamed Yare, Gahnug Yusuf Aare, Mohamed Aw Farah Ga’iye, Haye Hirad, alleged to be tribal chiefs and clan elders, reportedly killed on 18 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Sarecya Seerar Mohamed, her newborn child and eight other unidentified individuals, reportedly killed in mid-August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces in Qabridaharre (30 September 1996).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1936: Aboune Petros, Ethiopian bishop

Add comment July 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Italian forces occupying Ethiopia executed anti-occupation cleric Aboune Petros.

War on Ethiopia had been Benito Mussolini‘s monument to muscular Italian nationalism.

By May of 1936, it had forced Haile Selassie into exile and established control of the country. Mission accomplished!

At last Italy has her empire.

-Mussolini

As is often the case, the war of conquest instead transmogrified into a war against continuing resistance to foreign military occupation, and the colony of Italian East Africa was a short-lived and bloody affair.

The Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.

-Italian Gen. Rodolfo Graziani

(Though the progressive counterpart to Italy’s iron-fisted approach to troublemakers was monumental construction, and 1930s-era fascist architecture is still to be seen in Addis Ababa today.)

Ethiopian Orthodox patriarch Aboune — it’s a title that can also be rendered Abuna or Abune — Petros cut a public profile a little too sympathetic to the native subversives. When the Italians demanded that he tone it down, he replied (according to a hagiography that appears several places online),

The cry of my countrymen who died due to your nerve-gas and terror machinery will never allow my conscious to accept your ultimatum. How can I see my God if I give a blind eye to such a crime?

On July 28, Italians repelled a large* Abyssinian insurgent attack by the sons of Ras Kassa between Addis Ababa and Petros’s stomping-grounds of Dessie; the next day, Petros was escorted to an abrupt martyrdom to the mirroring causes of national self-determination and anti-insurgency realpolitik.

His sacrifice is commemorated in statuary as well as a couple of notable theatrical pieces, Yedam Dems (The Voice of Blood) by Makonnen Endalkachew** and Petros Yachin Saat (Petros At That Hour) by Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin.

* On the scale of thousands. It “showed a certain tenacity,” according to the London Times‘ droll Rome correspondent in a July 30 story.

** Not the same guy as the post-colonial Prime Minister who was executed in a 1974 purge.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,History,Italy,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1974: Black Saturday in Ethiopia

4 comments November 23rd, 2009 Headsman

November 23, 1974 was “Bloody Saturday” in Ethiopia for that day’s* surprise purge of some threescore politicians and soldiers by the ruling Derg.

It was barely ten weeks since the Derg — an Amharic word meaning “committee”, in this case a leftist military junta — had formally overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, so ancient that he was already middle-aged back when he’d been leading Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini.

It’s strange to say in retrospect, but having spent the best part of a year systematically supplanting the political authority of the decrepit ancien regime with widespread public support, the Derg had engendered hope that its revolution would be accomplished without slaughter.

“Ityopiya tikdem/yala mimin dem” — “Let Ethiopia progress/Without any bloodshed” — became the popular slogan of that heady time. (pdf source)

Black Saturday turned the leaf on all that, and opened the sanguinary chapter of Ethiopian history today evoked by the name of the Derg.

What went wrong with Ethiopia's bloodless revolution?
“The prospect,” concluded the analysis that appeared under this headline in the Nov. 29, 1974 London Times, “is that the mass executions will be followed by further drastic action aimed at consolidating the control of the new military rulers.” The same author, Michael Knipe, had written on Nov. 16 that “the firmness of [the military’s] control appears to be matched by an overall moderation of approach, which holds promise for Ethiopia’s future.”

The Derg long remained a shadowy body, its members largely unknown and its internecine factional politics only guessed-at. The executions this date are generally read as the consolidation of the coup’s “radical” elements as against its “moderates” and the first signal event in Derg member Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s eventual conquest of supreme authority.

The crucial issue that separated radicals from moderates at the revolution’s early stage appears to be their approach to the ongoing struggle of coastal Eritrea — then still a province of Ethiopia.

Ethnically Eritrean officer Aman Michael Andom, the first titular head of the Derg who had been deposed from his position only a week ago, was a noteworthy advocate of negotiating a peacable settlement with Eritrean agitators. He was among the casualties of Black Saturday. (Aman was later reported to have been killed resisting arrest, rather than actually executed; many of the available accounts of this massacre have slightly varying numbers and particulars.) Henceforth, military force would be Addis Ababa’s only approach to the Eritrean problem.

A few other Aman supporters in the Derg shared his fate in a political wipeout. But more numerous among the 29 civilian and 31 military men announced as casualties the next morning — and there had been no prior warning that executions were imminent — were aristocrats and officials of the Haile Selassie government, including:

  • Two former Prime Ministers, Endelkachew Makonnen and Aklilu Habte-Wold (or Aklilou Wold), both of whom had been slated for trial for the recent famine in Wollo (London Times, Nov. 14, 1974);**
  • Solomon Abrahami, the former governor of Wollo;
  • Selassie’s own grandsom, Rear Adm. Iskender (Alexander) Desta;
  • 16 generals, including Selassie’s son-in-law (and former Defense Minister) Abiye Abebe.

(This Nov. 25, 1974 New York Times article — behind the paper’s pay wall — lists all 60 vicitms.)

These were a selection of some 200 political prisoners held by the Derg; how hard to come down on these officials was another point of contention between radicals and moderates. It emerged later that the Derg had met earlier on the 23rd to vote, name by name, which among its prisoners deserved execution.

So if you look at it right, summarily machine-gunning only 30% of your political prisoners is a moderate policy. Alas: these would hardly be the last.

After the Derg government was itself finally overthrown in 1991 — and the troubled province of Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia — some of the perpetrators of its genocidal atrocities were themselves put on trial.

* It’s obscure — perhaps permanently so — whether the nighttime killings transpired before or after the end of the day, and both the 23rd and 24th are variously cited as the date of death. “Reliable sources said the executions were by machine gun at midnight,” the unhelpfully breezy New York Times reported on Nov. 25. This account (pdf) has the shootings occupying several batches with midnight passing during the process. We give precedence to Saturday the 23rd here because that’s the day that earned the “Bloody” appellation.

** According to Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Mengistu was rumored to have disposed of Aklilu personally.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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