Trial of Ethiopian Immigrant Highlights Country’s Dark Past

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The recent trial and conviction of an Ethiopian immigrant in Denver sheds light on Ethiopia's brutal past. The country’s civil war, known as the Red Terror, wore on throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. Memories of that era have resurfaced in the case of Alemu Worku.

Worku was convicted last week of immigration violations. On his immigration forms, he swore he’d never persecuted anyone in Ethiopia. However, at the trial witnesses testified that Worku was a guard and that he killed and terrorized inmates at a notorious prison in Addis Ababa, called “Higher 15.”

One of those witnesses was Greenwood Village resident Kiflu Ketema, who was in that prison for a year and a half. He tells CPR, "Four of my co-workers and my friends died in that prison. I saw them walking with him and I saw gunshots, I heard gunshots. What does that mean?”

Ketema says he also witnessed prisoners being beaten and burned, although he wasn’t subject to that kind of brutality himself. In a strange twist, Ketema and Worku both ended up in the Denver area, and one day Ketema saw Worku at an Aurora restaurant.

"And I ran to him and I asked him and I said 'Sir, I think I know you.' And he said 'You don’t know me.' 'Well I was at Higher 15 and you were there,' I said. 'It could have been my brother,' he said. When I saw him I was 100 percent sure. It was the same person. It was the first time in 33 years that I saw him."

Worku has since admitted he was a guard at Addis Ababa. Now, he’ll be a prisoner in an American prison for up to 12 years. After that, he may be extradited to Ethiopia, where he's also wanted to stand trial.

CPR's Ryan Warner talks with Ketema of Greenwood Village. Then, to learn more about the Red Terror in Ethiopia, Ryan speaks with Peter Van Arsdale, Director of African Initiatives at the University of Denver's Joseph Korbel School of International Studies.

[Photo: A Former Ethiopian Prison During the Country's Red Terror. Courtesy of Peter Van Arsdale]