June 05, 2006

The Long Interrogation Kelbessa Negewo

Published: June 4, 2006

On Aug. 3, 1987, Kelbessa Negewo debarked from a T.W.A. flight in New York. He cleared customs and entered the United States. A strong, thickset man, just a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday, he was traveling alone. In his suitcase, he carried the remnants of his old life: a few sets of clothes, an Ethiopian passport, a student visa issued at the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa and a reference letter from a former employer, the Mugher Cement Factory. His pockets contained $200. Kelbessa spent that first night in a cheap motel room. The next morning, after a meandering tour of the outer boroughs with an unscrupulous cabdriver, he arrived back at the airport, exasperated and financially drained. America was suffering through a broiling heat wave;

Edward Keating

Kelbessa Negewo, in detention in Atlanta, is facing deportation for torturing people under a military regime in Ethiopia in the 1970's.

Ethiopian Press Agency

Kelbessa Negewo, when he was a midlevel administrator during Ethiopia's Red Terror.

Kelbessa sweated through his shirt as he struggled with his luggage. Living here, he realized, was going to be difficult. But Kelbessa had experienced far worse. The soles of his feet bore scars from a whipping.

He boarded a plane bound for his new home, Atlanta. An old friend, Ayalew Berou, met Kelbessa when he landed. (Ethiopians formally address one another by their first names.) Ayalew took Kelbessa home, made him a meal and offered to put him up. He found Kelbessa a night job cleaning grocery stores. Kelbessa gradually settled into an immigrant's existence. He worked hard and went unnoticed, renting tiny apartments in disfavored suburbs, toiling in the dismal reaches of the service economy. He didn't socialize much, not even with other Ethiopians. Kelbessa tried going to one of their Bible study groups for a while, but he got the feeling that people were whispering things behind his back, so he quit.

Six months after he arrived in America, Kelbessa applied for political asylum, saying he had been persecuted and imprisoned by Ethiopia's military dictatorship. It was the Reagan era, and Ethiopia was Communist; the application was quickly approved. Kelbessa then set about achieving his next goal: saving enough money to send for his three children, who were still stuck in Ethiopia. (He and his wife were divorced.) He worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store and took a second job, washing dishes at the Colony Square Hotel. Later, he was promoted to bellhop.

One afternoon, Kelbessa was outside the employee locker room, waiting for the service elevator. The elevator doors opened, and another Ethiopian walked out, a young woman in a waitress's uniform. She worked at the restaurant upstairs. Kelbessa hailed her as a compatriot and introduced himself. He let the elevator go, and they had a brief conversation. Then the woman, whose shift was ending, hurried off to clock out. Kelbessa went on with his day.

Kelbessa started hearing rumors after that. The waitress was asking questions about him. One day, she brought a couple of Ethiopian friends into the hotel. The three women didn't say anything to Kelbessa; they just stood in the lobby and stared.

Not long afterward, in September 1990, someone else visited Kelbessa at work: a process server. He handed Kelbessa some papers, which informed him that he was being sued in federal court on charges of violating international human rights laws. The lawsuit said he was far from a mere victim of Ethiopia's brutal regime. It claimed Kelbessa had once been its servant, a notorious torturer and killer, during a period known as the Red Terror a dozen years before. His chief accuser was a woman named Edgegayehu Taye — the waitress. Though neither she nor Kelbessa knew it then, the two immigrants were preparing to embark on a 15-year passage through the formative reaches of human rights law. Justice, and eventually even Kelbessa's freedom, would turn on a single question, decided by American judges, in American courts: What happened so long ago, in the country they both left behind?

Lately, Kelbessa has had a lot of time to contemplate the vicissitudes of life. For the past 17 months, he has been imprisoned in Atlanta. He sits alone inside a stuffy jail cell for 23 hours of most days, breaking the solitude by teaching himself the basics of immigration law and by writing a jailhouse memoir, scrawled out on several notepads. The book begins with a discussion of peasant agriculture and Marxism and concludes with a description of prison life: the cold food, the constant racket. He vehemently denies the accusations against him and says that before the glancing encounter at the Colony Square, he never met the woman who accused him. "Every day I wake up in the morning in American prison," Kelbessa writes. "I think for a while, why am I in here?"

He is there because the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is holding him in detention while it tries to deport him back to Ethiopia, where he has been accused of committing many atrocities. Kelbessa's case, one of the first of its kind under a new law, is a product of many chance occurrences. If Edgegayehu Taye hadn't taken the waitress job, if their shifts hadn't overlapped that day, if she'd just kept quiet, if she'd never moved to Atlanta in the first place, then maybe Kelbessa could have lived in peace. But that is not the same as saying his story was unlikely. In a nation with a proud heritage as a haven for refugees, no conflict is too far removed. Immigrant communities may seem undifferentiated to native-born Americans, sealed off as they are by their foreign languages and customs. But in this time of impassioned argument over immigration, it is important to remember that the talk of human tides and huddled masses is just rhetorical shorthand. Each immigrant has his own reasons for making the journey; each brings to America his own history, and sometimes, his own secrets.

Antonin Kratochvil/VII, for The New York Times

Edgegayehu Taye, scarred from torture she says was supervised by Kelbessa Negewo.

Antonin Kratochvil/VII, for The New York Times

Hirut Abebe-Jiri, who charged that Kelbessa Negewo imprisoned and tortured her.

United States government officials estimate that as many as 1,000 foreign residents may have once committed serious human rights abuses. Three years ago, a United Nations tribunal convicted a Rwandan pastor of genocide; he had been apprehended in Laredo, Tex. In Phoenix, more recently, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees immigration, arrested 24 Bosnian Serbs on suspicion that they committed atrocities during their homeland's civil war. In 1997, angry Haitian émigrés unmasked a former leader of a vicious paramilitary unit. He had been working as a real estate agent in Queens. Another Haitian, a key member of an ousted military regime, blew his cover when he won $3.2 million in the Florida lottery.

Of course, unsavory exiles have been washing up on foreign shores for as long as there have been wars and tyrants. But where once a czarist general or a Venezuelan caudillo could expect to live out his days without disturbance, the world has changed in the 60 years since the Nuremburg trials. As far-flung societies have drawn closer together, they have gradually developed international standards of human rights and a patchwork legal system to judge crimes against them. The case of Kelbessa Negewo took place at the confluence of these two historic trends. An airplane brought Kelbessa to a place where no one knew his name. In a courtroom, his past was laid bare.

Kelbessa was born in rural western Ethiopia in 1950, midway through the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. His family raised goats and grew onions. "Through my whole life, I observed and learnt power is very seductive," Kelbessa writes in his jailhouse memoir. The corrupt governor of his province, he recalled, collected taxes from his parents but never built a road for his village, as promised. Kelbessa had to trudge to school on foot.

There was no one to complain to. In those days, you couldn't fight the emperor. They called Selassie "the King of Kings." A slight, crafty political survivor, he held court in Addis Ababa surrounded by fawning, plotting nobles. The aristocrats were often members of Selassie's Amhara ethnic group. They were allotted huge estates in the African hinterland, which the local peasants worked like serfs.

This hierarchy was breaking down by the time Kelbessa came of age. Ethiopia was one of the few corners of the continent that had not been colonized in the 19th century. But the forbidding mountains that had repelled invaders could not keep out the convulsive spirit of Africa's independence era. University students were on the streets, calling for land reform, and the country was awash in pamphlets attacking the emperor. Kelbessa, who by this time had earned a diploma in public health and had a government job, would read these missives furtively, in the bathroom. The turning point for him came when he won a government scholarship to attend college in the United States, and a government official, an Amhara like Selassie, pulled a string to send his nephew instead. After that, Kelbessa says, he hated the regime.

Kelbessa moved to Addis Ababa, where revolution was gaining momentum. In 1973, famine gripped Ethiopia. Selassie sat in his palace, increasingly isolated, tossing scraps of meat to his beloved dogs. In September 1974, army tanks surrounded the palace and the emperor was bundled into the back of a Volkswagen Beetle and taken to prison.

Kelbessa, like many Ethiopians, embraced the revolution. The military established a 120-member Derg, or committee, to rule the country. It promised land reform and a prompt transition to representative rule. Kelbessa was thrilled. A month after Selassie's overthrow, the Derg closed down the university and ordered its students to disperse across the countryside and "educate the people." Kelbessa volunteered to teach the basics of farming. Shortly after that, the Derg announced plans to establish a socialist one-party state, began confiscating property from the "feudalists" of the old elite and established a system of elected neighborhood councils that were to administer changes on a local level. Kelbessa took up a position on his council.

These initial moves were popular with many of the country's Marxist intellectuals and young people, even some children of the elite. But disenchantment set in quickly. The military shocked the country by executing a group of 59 royals and other leaders of the imperial regime. Paranoia settled over the capital. Members of the Derg assassinated one another in a struggle for control, and eventually, an obscure army major named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged. Mengistu secretly ordered Selassie's murder and had him buried in an unmarked grave. The Marxists split: one group supported Mengistu's methods; the other decided to fight him. The opponents joined the clandestine Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (E.P.R.P.), which began its own campaign of bombings and assassinations.

In April 1977, at a public rally, Mengistu smashed glass bottles filled with blood, or some red liquid, and vowed to conquer the "enemies of the revolution." All over the city, corpses appeared on the streets, pinned with signs bearing slogans referring to the government's Red Terror campaign. It would prove to be, according to a Human Rights Watch report, "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa."

Kelbessa was never more than a midlevel figure in Ethiopia's government. At the time of the Red Terror, he was chairman of Higher Zone 9, a district of Addis Ababa. In this administrative post, he oversaw several neighborhood councils. Mengistu's proclamation of war, however, strengthened positions like Kelbessa's. The government instructed the local councils to recruit new "revolutionary defense squads," which were armed and given orders to root out any threat. Kelbessa took to strutting around his neighborhood with a machine gun slung across his chest, leading an entourage of militiamen. He cut a distinctive figure with his large afro and his bellicose oratory, and he was often in the newspaper or on television. Others were higher-ranking, but few were louder in proclaiming their ruthless devotion to the struggle. A series of memos, unearthed in the course of Kelbessa's legal travails, reveal that he was tireless in begging his higher-ups for more guns, more ammunition and more press coverage. He told them of great strides in "the process of weeding out antirevolutionary elements."

Late one afternoon in February 1978, according to sworn testimony, a squad of revolutionary guards arrived at the home of Edgegayehu Taye, a 22-year-old civil servant. They told her she was wanted for questioning. She went without protest. The guards pushed her into the back seat of a Volkswagen and drove her some distance, until the car reached a corrugated metal gate marked by a sign that read: "Higher Zone 9." The guards took her into the main office. Edgegayehu was ordered to strip naked and was bound with rope at her wrists and knees. Then the guards ran a pole through the loops in the rope and hung her between two desks, like a pig on a spit. They lashed her with plastic cables.

Over and over again, the man behind the desk, the one with the afro, asked her, "Are you a member of the E.P.R.P.?"

Years later, when she saw the man standing by the elevator at the Colony Square Hotel, Edgegayehu wasn't sure it was Kelbessa at first. He'd gotten older, gained some weight, lost his swagger. He certainly didn't seem to recognize her. Then Kelbessa smiled widely and greeted her, and she knew for sure. "The voice," she told me. "You don't forget the voice."

Edgegayehu is an old Amharic name. Americans find it difficult to pronounce (it is pronounced ed-JIH-GAH-yu), so these days she goes by a nickname, Edge. She is middle-aged now and lives in Ohio, in a home she has decorated with reminders of Ethiopia. Even after so many years, the very mention of Kelbessa's name causes her voice to crack.

Edge told me the first thing she felt that day, as Kelbessa stepped into the elevator and she hurried out of the hotel, was a stab of nausea. Then incomprehension set in. "Seeing him here, I couldn't swallow that," she says, still sounding a bit disbelieving. "Kelbessa, that man, that big man, the person who acts like a god during his time, the person who makes you or breaks you, the person who decided whether you live or you die. That person, to see that person here, wearing that dishwasher's uniform? I don't think so."

After that first encounter with Kelbessa, Edge spent several months wondering what to do. She had never been able to talk about her torture, not even to her closest friends and relatives. Finally, she mentioned her run-in to a few friends. Word got around. An acquaintance, an Ethiopian who worked in the office of Andrew Young, then Atlanta's mayor, made some calls and got in contact with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal organization based in New York. Someone from the center contacted Miles Alexander, a partner at the Atlanta law firm Kilpatrick & Cody. He agreed to look into the case pro bono.

Edge set up an appointment with her new lawyers. She was led into a wood-paneled corner office, where she met Alexander and Laurel Lucey, the associate assigned to the case. They told Edge there might be something they could do. There was a law, a very old law, called the Alien Tort Claims Act. Passed as part of the first Judiciary Act in 1789, it said American federal courts had jurisdiction in cases in which injuries had occurred "in violation of the law of nations," regardless of where those violations occurred. No one was really sure what the First Congress meant by "the law of nations" — it may have had something to do with pirates — but in the early 1980's, a group of human rights lawyers had dusted off the dormant phrase, using it to go after the likes of Imelda Marcos.

To get started, though, the lawyers needed Edge to give them a detailed description of what happened back in Ethiopia. She really didn't know what to say. She had never put words to her memories before. She opened her mouth and started talking. But the story came out muddled. It was so hard to explain. Finally, flustered, Edge twisted around in her chair and pulled off her shirt. Alexander and Lucey, dumbfounded, stared at her back. It was crisscrossed by long, ridged scars.

Edge has been required to describe her ordeal on many occasions since then. But it is painful every time, she says. When she told me about it, she adopted a hunched-over posture, and her voice sank to almost a whisper. She says she has never been sure why she was arrested. That first night, between whippings, the guards dragged in a young man she knew. "He gave my name," she says, dabbing her eyes with one of the paper napkins she had left out in a stack on the coffee table. "Probably he did that out of fear, out of pain. I don't blame him. I saw him. He was tortured very badly."

There really didn't need to be a reason. In a study of the Mengistu regime, René Lefort writes that "simply knowing how to read and write and being aged about 20" was enough to get a person branded a counterrevolutionary. But Edge fitted the profile of a rebel in some specific ways. Her father had been a member of the old elite. She worked in a government ministry, as an architectural draftswoman, and she had told some co-workers that she was worried about the course the revolution was taking. Edge told me she was never involved in the clandestine attacks against the government. But she adds, "I sympathized, of course."

Kelbessa's men tried to beat a confession out of her for two days, Edge says. When that didn't work, she was transferred to another detention center, where she was tortured further. For 10 months, she lived in a small cell filled with as many as 30 other women. At night, guards would come in and call out names, and those they summoned would be shot. Edge heard more about Kelbessa from her cellmates. One of them, a woman named Sosena, was the daughter of a former supreme court justice. The story went that Kelbessa had ordered her father executed, and his body dumped by the roadside.

Eventually Edge was transferred to a regular prison, where she served a three-year sentence. When she was released, in 1981, she made a daring escape from Ethiopia, paying a band of Somali nomads to smuggle her across the desert to Djibouti. From there, via a refugee program, she immigrated to Canada. She married an Ethiopian and moved to Detroit. Shivering through one winter, Edge read the novel "Gone With the Wind," and something in it captured her imagination. She decided to move to Atlanta. She loved it there: loved the big Ethiopian community, loved the warm weather, loved the red clay, which reminded her of the soil in Sidamo, the province where she was born.

Then she saw Kelbessa. "He made my life so miserable," Edge says. "He's the person who snatched away my happiness, my youth, my laugh at that age. I didn't want to leave him alone. I didn't want to let it go. Knowing that he is living here, after he did so many crimes." She added: "I had to do something, even if it was a small thing. I hadn't any idea about the magnitude of this case. For me it is a simple case."

Her lawyers knew better. At the time, using the Alien Tort statute to pursue human rights violators was a fringe idea, the project of a small group of left-leaning legal activists. No one was even certain whether the approach was constitutional. A judge in Atlanta might easily decide that the sorrows of Ethiopia were not of his court's concern. At the very least, the lawyers told Edge, it would help to have some additional plaintiffs, a few more victims to corroborate her story.

Edge went home and started working the Ethiopian immigrant network. She remembered that her old cellmate, Sosena, had a sister in Los Angeles named Elizabeth, who had been in prison. (For reasons of privacy Elizabeth has asked that her last name not be used.) She agreed to participate in the lawsuit and called a close friend in Ottawa, Hirut Abebe-Jiri. The two women flew down to Atlanta. Edge took them to the Colony Square, and from a distance they watched Kelbessa, standing in the sky-lighted lobby in his gray bellhop's uniform. "It was unbelievable," recalls Hirut, who claims Kelbessa tortured and imprisoned her for three months. "The guy who was leading all these people with his Uzi on his chest now becoming just a guy who was carrying a suitcase."

When the trial convened at the Atlanta federal courthouse, in May 1993, the gallery was filled with Ethiopians. Paul Hoffman, a prominent Los Angeles human rights lawyer, led a team of attorneys for the plaintiffs. Kelbessa, who couldn't afford a lawyer, defended himself. He wore a suit and a thick mustache and spoke with a heavy accent. "I have never tortured," Kelbessa said in his opening statement. "I'm not responsible for what Derg has done. Fifty-two million people are participating in the revolution. I'm an individual. I was working for the people."

Then the women testified, in gruesome detail, and Kelbessa cross-examined them. He assumed the manner of an interrogator, repeatedly accusing the women of having once been members of the underground resistance.

"You don't feel shame when you lie?" he asked Edge. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do nothing," she replied, her anger getting the best of her English. "I don't have to." She added: "You people are killing people, tortured people, detained people every day. You are the nightmare of Addis Ababa."

Three months later, the judge issued his decision, siding with the women and awarding them $1.5 million in damages. Kelbessa filed an appeal, declared bankruptcy and moved on. The verdict hardly troubled his daily existence; if anything, things improved. The Colony Square fired him, but he collected unemployment checks and used the free time to earn a degree in accounting from DeVry University. He later found a new job at the Westin. He married again, an Ethiopian 15 years his junior. When they had a son, in 1996, Kelbessa insisted on naming him Justice. The boy was born with a rare vitamin deficiency, however, and after nine months he died. They tried again and had a daughter, who is now a healthy and rambunctious 6-year-old. The year after the verdict, as he was pursuing his ultimately unsuccessful appeal, Kelbessa filed a naturalization application with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. On July 28, 1995, Kelbessa took an oath of allegiance and became a citizen of the United States.

The women who accused Kelbessa never thought their lawsuit would bring them financial gain. (Over the years, they have managed to collect $798 in damages, which they have donated to charity.) They had, however, expected that all the trial publicity would prod the United States government to deport Kelbessa back to Ethiopia, where he would have to face real consequences. Mengistu's dictatorship had fallen, and Ethiopia's new government had appointed a special prosecutor to try those responsible for the Red Terror. Days after the verdict in Kelbessa's civil trial, the Ethiopian prosecutor formally asked the United States to turn him over. But the government never acted, and once Kelbessa became an American citizen, deportation was out of the question. Around the time Kelbessa won his citizenship, Edge moved back to Detroit. If he was going to be staying in Atlanta, she had to leave.

For the women, it was a wrenching turn of events. But the hard truth was, Kelbessa couldn't be kicked out of America simply on the basis of charges — however substantiated — that he had tortured and killed people back home. American law, for complex reasons of history and politics, made it extraordinarily difficult to convey Kelbessa from his apartment in Atlanta to a courtroom in Ethiopia, however much he belonged there.

The immigration law on the books, like the modern human rights movement itself, was a product of the Holocaust. In the 1950's and 60's, there were a number of cases in which fugitive war criminals were found to be living comfortable lives in America. Once they were discovered, it proved almost impossible to deport these people without evidence of recent crimes or fraud in the application process. So in the mid-70's, Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York congresswoman, proposed a law to bar Nazi criminals from the United States and a new Office of Special Investigations within the Justice Department to track them down. Yet the law was written narrowly, so that it would essentially apply only to Nazis. It was the cold war era; some of America's best friends were dictators.

With the end of the cold war, international human rights law evolved, coming to focus increasingly on conflicts in the developing world. The United Nations set up special courts to try those responsible for the carnage in the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The International Criminal Court, established in 1998, began investigating crimes committed in Congo, Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan. In the United States, the use of the Alien Tort statute to pursue violators of human rights became an accepted legal practice, upheld (though somewhat narrowed) by a 2004 Supreme Court decision. But this international legal system — if you could even call it that yet — was still a jerry-built creation, with many hitches and flaws. For all the talk of universal rights, the world was still made up of sovereign nations with borders and rules. Kelbessa Negewo managed to find a haven in the wide gap between the aspirations of global justice and the reality of these earthbound things called laws. But only for a time.

When the women who accused Kelbessa heard that the government had awarded him citizenship, they were astonished and furious. Two of them flew down to Atlanta to tape a CNN segment, which was shown while President Bill Clinton was touring Africa. "This is a huge mistake they made," one of the women told the network. In 1999, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, inspired by many similar stories — including a Boston Globe account of a Bosnian baker in his home state who had been identified as a former paramilitary gunman — sponsored a bill to make past acts of torture or extrajudicial killing grounds for deportation, and to expand the mission of the Office of Special Investigations beyond Nazi-hunting.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, who apparently knew about the torture charges against Kelbessa when they awarded him citizenship, ordered a new investigation, the first step in the arduous process necessary to revoke it. The agency sent investigators to Ethiopia twice to gather evidence and interview witnesses. "It was offensive that he was here as a citizen," says Kimberly Schroeder, the investigator who handled the case, "and that bothered me terribly after meeting the women." Schroeder collaborated with the Ethiopian special prosecutor, who was preparing a case against Kelbessa. Under Mengistu the secret police had Soviet and East German advisers, and they had encouraged meticulous record-keeping. The prosecutors unearthed many archival documents that incriminated Kelbessa, like signed memos in which he described taking "revolutionary actions" — the favored euphemism for extrajudicial murder — on suspected resistance fighters.

"He is one of the most savage of all our cases," Yoseph Kiros, the prosecutor who handled Kelbessa's case, said in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa. Eventually, tired of waiting for Kelbessa's return, the Ethiopian prosecutors decided to try him in absentia before a three-judge tribunal, along with dozens of co-defendants from the neighborhood. Because Kelbessa wasn't there, no defense attorney represented him. More than 100 witnesses came to testify. They accused Kelbessa of ordering many executions. One man was killed, according to testimony and written evidence, simply so Kelbessa could confiscate his Peugeot. In May 2002, the tribunal convicted Kelbessa of several murders and sentenced him to life in prison.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the legal barriers to Kelbessa's return home were finally falling. In 2004, after years of delays, Leahy's bill finally became law as part of the Intelligence Reform Act. The same autumn, as Kelbessa prepared to face a federal judge, he abruptly, and perhaps unwisely, decided to give up his citizenship without a fight. Kelbessa had just bought a three-bedroom house in a subdivision south of Atlanta. He did not have the money for years of appeals, and his wife as well as an attorney he consulted were urging him to get his legal battles finished. He signed a settlement agreement reluctantly, hoping his gesture of submission might persuade the government to leave him alone.

Three months later, on the morning of Jan. 4, 2005, armed federal agents knocked at the door of Kelbessa's new suburban home. He was sound asleep; the night before, he worked a late shift at his hotel job. Kelbessa came downstairs in his nightclothes, groggy, asking what was going on. The agents cuffed Kelbessa's hands behind his back. Then they put him in a car and drove him to a detention center.

I first met Kelbessa last December, a few days before Christmas, in a fluorescent-lighted room inside the Atlanta City Detention Center, a 14-story municipal jail where the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement leases space. He shuffled in, led by a beefy prison guard, his legs shackled, his arms cuffed before him and affixed to a chain around his waist. He was wearing a bright orange prison uniform. His hair was thin, and his mustache was flecked with gray. Though only 55, he looked very frail. Kelbessa contorted his wrists within the cuffs in order to offer a handshake. Then he sat down on a hard wooden bench.

"I didn't expect from America this kind of stuff, because this is a very highly civilized country," he told me. "I was trying to improve myself. I bought a house. I was working hard. And all of a sudden, they accused me, the government accused me." Kelbessa lowered his voice for emphasis and said, "I am not a torturer."

Kelbessa will be kept in detention for as long as his deportation case is pending, which is mandated by law, because his 2002 conviction in Ethiopia means that he is classified as a violent felon. "Because he's facing life when he returns to Ethiopia, he's also considered a very high flight risk," Schroeder says. Kelbessa says that that sentence was a product of a "sham trial." The damning memos that prosecutors uncovered have been taken out of context, he claims. When I asked him what he meant when he wrote his superiors about "weeding out" resistance fighters, he laughed. "That is revolutionary language," he said.

Kelbessa is terrified of what will happen to him if he is deported. He has seen the inside of an Ethiopian prison before. In 1979, as the Red Terror was winding down, the forces of the revolution turned against him, and he was purged. Kelbessa was jailed, and only released when the military regime pardoned him several years later. Eventually it granted Kelbessa permission to emigrate to the United States, where he claimed asylum, saying, truthfully, that he had been a prisoner. "I was tortured for five years," Kelbessa said. He claimed he had never lied to immigration officials and said he believed that the United States had merely been duped by his home country's present government, which is led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former anti-Mengistu rebel. "I am just a victim," Kelbessa said. "I am a victim of the Ethiopian government. Before, I was a victim of the Derg military government. I can't tolerate torture now. I am old now for torture."

Kelbessa's fears may not be entirely unfounded. Prime Minister Meles's regime has gone to great pains to give the perpetrators of the Red Terror fair trials. It's a poor country, however, and the special tribunals have had to deal with more than 2,000 defendants. Human rights groups have documented numerous irregularities. "Ethiopia has violated the rights of the defendants in its pursuit of justice," concluded a law review article by one American lawyer who consulted the tribunal. Prison conditions are uniformly awful. In the last year, Kelbessa is quick to note, Ethiopia's political situation has taken a drastic turn for the worse, as Meles has jailed journalists and opposition politicians. Human Rights Watch says political prisoners are sometimes abused.

Since the United States enacted its new, tough law aimed at immigrants with a history of committing atrocities, some have questioned it, wondering whether the United States should be sending anyone, however loathsome, to places where their own rights might in turn be violated. "There has been a great deal of debate within the human rights community about the immigration option," says William Aceves, a law professor and the principal author of a 2002 Amnesty International report titled "United States of America: A Safe Haven for Torturers," which highlighted Kelbessa's case. "It's frustrating, because the human rights community is in favor of accountability, but we want to make sure that it's legitimate accountability." Aceves and others point out that the United States has a federal torture statute, passed in 1994, which applies to acts committed anywhere in the world. But no one has ever been charged under the law. For now, the United States government is putting its energies into deportation cases instead. In less than two years, the immigration bureau has prosecuted or investigated more than 1,000 cases related to human rights abuses. Legal advocates for immigrants, however, caution that many of those caught thus far appear to be marginal figures, not masterminds.

Deportation cases are handled in a special nationwide system of immigration courts. As a result of the federal government's new vigilance about human rights abusers, these courts are increasingly playing a new role, as a way station between exile and, presumably, a trial back home. Even the best-run court system, however, would struggle with such distant events as the crimes of the Red Terror, with their complex political and ethnic overtones, and human rights advocates question whether the immigration court system, which is overburdened, underfinanced and opaque, is up to the task. "It's a really shocking system," says Carolyn Patty Blum, a Columbia University law professor who specializes in asylum and human rights cases. The standard of proof for deportation is lower than it is for criminal trials. There are usually few witnesses called. The proceedings are often closed to the public. There is no public defender.

Normally, an Ethiopian facing deportation and certain life imprisonment at home could hope to find free legal representation within the network of lawyers affiliated with immigrant rights organizations. As a general principle, human rights groups like Amnesty International oppose trials in absentia like Kelbessa's. But after Kelbessa was arrested, his wife talked to every immigration lawyer she could find in Atlanta, and none would take his case. A few were sympathetic until they heard the details of his past. So for now, Kelbessa is fighting deportation on his own. In his cell, he keeps a large stack of well-thumbed trial transcripts, plaintive letters to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and legal briefs, which he writes by hand on notebook paper.

Kelbessa's deportation hearing took place over two days last July. The judge in the case, William Cassidy, has a reputation as one of the nation's toughest. In a reprise of the last trial, 12 years before, Edge, Elizabeth and Hirut told their stories, and Kelbessa, in his orange prison garb, cross-examined them. He threw around a few unfounded accusations. But he just wasn't the same ferocious questioner. Kelbessa called just two character witnesses in his defense. When his wife took the stand, their fidgety daughter sat on her lap, and she swore she had never heard Kelbessa raise his voice in anger. Even the women testifying against him felt a twinge of pity for the family. But then again, none of them had ever had any children. "I couldn't bring any child in this world," Hirut told me. "It's not safe."

Kelbessa has never expressed sympathy for the women who say they endured so much suffering. "These are the feudal children," he told me when I visited him a second time, in March. "Their fathers used to have big land, and so many tenants." Edge's father was a senator. Elizabeth's was a supreme court justice. Hirut's was a lawyer and a confidant of Haile Selassie's son. As children of privilege, he said, "they didn't accept the change — they didn't like the change." They were in their teens or just barely beyond, but to Kelbessa, fired as he was by fear, ambition and resentment, their parentage was enough to identify them as threats. "They are not innocent," he said. "There are no innocents. In Ethiopia, you can't say, 'innocent."'

When he looks back on the whole saga now, the 17 years since that chance meeting at the Colony Square Hotel, all Kelbessa sees is one large, many-faced conspiracy, orchestrated by his enemies back in Ethiopia. "I think you know about third world politics," he told me. "They want revenge." The idea that there might be motivations other than vengeance, that there might be no dark political force at work, that this might simply be a story of happenstance and justice, seems genuinely never to have occurred to him. He can see the world only as a struggle between two ruthless forces. For him, the Red Terror has never ended.

Last July, Judge Cassidy ruled that Kelbessa should be deported and dismissed his claims that he would be tortured in Ethiopia. The case is now making its way through a long, lurching appeals process, which could take anywhere from a few more months to a few years. If no court overturns the deportation order, then one day, federal agents will come to Kelbessa's cell. He will be allowed to change into civilian clothes. He will be handcuffed and escorted onto a flight to Addis Ababa. At the airport, the agent will hand Kelbessa over to Ethiopian officials. Then he will most likely be taken to Kaliti Prison, on the outskirts of the capital. There he will begin his new life.
Source: The Newyork Times

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