THE HAGUE, Netherlands - A former Ethiopian soldier denied responsibility Monday for war crimes committed under a brutal Marxist regime in his home country in the 1970s, as he was questioned by judges at the start of his trial in a Dutch court.
"You have the wrong person," the 63-year-old suspect, Eshetu Alemu, told a three-judge panel at The Hague District Court.
Goran Sluiter, a lawyer for victims, said the case sent an important message, that the Dutch commitment to prosecuting atrocities from the past, even if committed in another country, "means that suspects of these crimes are never safe."
Alemu, a longtime resident and citizen of the Netherlands, is charged with war crimes including involvement in torturing prisoners to death under the brutal 1974-1991 regime of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu's regime, though no one knows for sure how many suspected opponents were killed. Human Rights Watch has described the 1977-78 campaign known as the Red Terror as "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa."
Mengistu, who has lived in exile in Zimbabwe since being driven from power in 1991, was convicted in absentia in 2006 of genocide and sentenced to death two years later by Ethiopia's Supreme Court.
Answering questions by presiding judge Mariette Renckens, Alemu said he was a soldier in Ethiopia and became a propagandist for the Mengistu regime, even flying to Moscow to learn about Marxist ideology before returning to spread the message in Ethiopia.
Alemu denied responsibility for allegations by prosecutors who accuse him of crimes including ordering the murder of 75 prisoners who were reportedly killed in a church and had their bodies dumped in a mass grave in 1978.
In a statement, the National Prosecutor's Office said Alemu has been convicted in absentia by an Ethiopian court and sentenced to death for the murder of suspected opponents of the regime.
Sebene Ademe, an Ethiopian who now lives in Washington, D.C., said her brother, 32-year-old high school administrator Belachew Ademe, was among those allegedly ordered killed by Alemu in 1978.
In court Monday to watch the case, Ademe wept during a break in the proceedings, saying that she remembers her brother every day.
"I am waiting for justice," she said.
Relatives of victims are scheduled to address the judges on Thursday. Prosecutors will make their sentencing request next week.