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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Genocide Trial Opens in Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA -- Ethiopia's former Marxist rulers went on trial Tuesday charged with grave human rights abuses during their 17-year rule of terror.

Some 66 members of the "dergue" military junta that seized power in a 1974 revolution are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, although exiled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam himself is being tried in absentia.

Contacted by telephone at his luxury villa in the suburbs of Harare in Zimbabwe, Mengistu acknowledged that there were killings during his rule, but said reports that hundreds of thousands of people died were "so much exaggerated."

"To say the numbers are 100,000 or 150,000, this is absolute lies," the former leader said.

The trials are one of the largest of their kind since the leaders of Nazi Germany faced justice after World War II.

Those being held in Addis Ababa's main prison filed into the court under the sullen gaze of victims' families and their own relatives. They were mostly elderly men in crumpled suits, but prison guards wielding AK-47 rifles stood by with the safety catches off.

Mengistu's name was called twice and he was declared absent. The dictator, who fled to Zimbabwe as guerrillas closed in on the Ethiopian capital three years ago, is the most notorious name on the list of accused who could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Three judges read from a 269-page document of charges, which listed allegations of murder, torture and the formation of "liquidation squads."

Reading of the charges was expected to take at least a day.

The first allegation dealt with the execution by firing squad of 60 of Emperor Haile Selassie's ministers and aristocratic deputies in November 1974 "on the pretext that they were members of the feudal aristocracy."

They were next accused of murdering the emperor on "allegations that he was an oppressor, a reactionary and the head of a feudal regime."

The list of alleged crimes then dealt with the murder and disappearance of people, many of them students, during Mengistu's "Red Terror" against rival Marxist groups in the late 1970s.

The dergue members are in the dock charged with the killings and disappearances of more than 2,000 identified people. But prosecutors note that these crimes were part of a much wider system of abuses against Ethiopians.

(Reuters, AP)