Prosecutors “have the wrong person,” Eshetu Alemu said as his trial opened in The Hague.
“I was really shocked when I heard what prosecutors are accusing me of doing, that I could behave like that as a human being,” he added in a rare case before a Dutch court.
“I deny the charges against me,” added the 63-year-old, dressed in a grey windbreaker and jeans.
Alemu is alleged to have been a henchman for former Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in northwestern Gojjam province.
The hearings involve “a grim series of events involving the incarceration, torture and murder of opponents of the 1970s revolutionary regime in Ethiopia,” the prosecution said before the trial.
A total of 321 victims have been named in four war crimes charges which include the “arbitrary detention and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians and fighters who had laid down their arms,” prosecutors added in a statement.
Witnesses have come forward to detail “acts of torture” including “beatings and kicking” when some victims “were tied up and suspended in mid-air”.
“In August 1978, the suspect allegedly ordered the killing of 75 young prisoners” in a church, the prosecution said. The bodies were then dumped in a mass grave.
In the fourth charge, Alemu is accused of “the incarceration and inhumane treatment of 240 people” sentenced to prison without trial.
– ‘No safe haven’ –
Some victims are due to address the court on Thursday, said Wim de Bruin, a prosecution spokesman, with prosecutors due to unveil their demand for sentence next week.
“The Netherlands and Dutch prosecutors find that this country should not be a safe haven for people who have committed possible war crimes,” he told AFP.
Alemu, who has Dutch citizenship, testified in Dutch, telling judges he was a senior member of the ruling Derg, Ethiopia’s Marxist-Leninist junta at the time and “responsible for propaganda”. He said he was twice targeted for assassination by rival political groups.
“Terrible things happened,” Alemu added in a statement read by presiding judge Mariette Renckens, who asked if he “ever signed an execution order”, to which Alemu answered “No”.
Renckens, citing from a massive 1,000-page dossier told Alemu his signature was on an August 1978 document, ordering that “revolutionary measures” be taken against more than 70 prisoners.
She said such orders usually meant “execution without trial”.
But Alemu replied: “I never gave such an order and did not have the authority to so. I was never there.”
– Reign of terror –
Mengistu ruled Ethiopia from 1977 with an iron fist after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. He was then ousted himself in 1991 after a series of revolts.
“Under the Mengistu-regime, Ethiopia lived through a bloody period of repression and strife at the cost of thousands of lives,” the Dutch prosecutors said, referring to a period which became known as the “Red Terror”.
Alemu, who has been in Dutch custody for two years, was “sentenced to death in absentia in Ethiopia for the murder of suspected opponents of the regime,” prosecutors said.
But since the Ethiopian judgement cannot be carried out here, “a trial in The Netherlands is the best option to call the man to account before a court of law”.
“I lost friends and relatives,” one victim, Sirak Asfwa, told AFP clutching a faded black-and-white picture of a friend, who he said was killed by the regime.
“I am here because I don’t want the next generation to see what I have seen. I want them to be free,” he added.