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Trial in Denver will spotlight terror in Ethiopia

By Tom McGhee
 The Denver Post

 Updated: 10/08/2013 08:29:32 AM MDT

 The prosecutor in the trial of an Ethiopian accused of taking part in torture and murder during political upheaval in the African nation told jurors Monday that they will hear from some of those who witnessed his blood-thirsty reign at a prison there.

 Kefelgn Alemu Worku is charged with coming into the United States illegally. Among the false statements he is accused of making in applying for naturalization is the answer "no" he gave to this question: "Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin ... or political opinion?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Brenda Taylor said.

 The stories of those who survived their time at "Higher 15," the prison in Addis Ababa where he was a guard, will show that he lied, Taylor told jurors on Monday, the first day of Alemu Worku's trial in U.S. District Court in Denver.

 Matthew Golla, the defense attorney for Alemu Worku, also known as John Doe, said he doesn't doubt that "wicked" things were done in the Ethiopian prison during the late 1970s, a period known as the Red Terror.

 "The facts will show that this man had no part in that," Golla, an assistant federal defender, told jurors. "I think the evidence will show their identifications are suspect."

 One witness will be Samuel Habteab Berhe, who immigrated from East Africa in 1995, Taylor said. When war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Habteab Berhe arranged for his father, who was Eritrean, and four younger siblings to go to Kenya. "But there was a problem," Taylor said.

 His father was ill — mentally and physically — and it was his status as an Eritrean that would make it possible for the family to immigrate to the United States, Taylor said. Habteab Berhe's brothers and sisters met Alemu Worku, whom they knew as "Tufa," and enlisted him to act as their father, Habteab Berhe Temanu, during the immigration process.

 "His children made an impossible choice and sent their father back to Eritrea," Taylor said.

 He died in 2005.

 The family and Alemu Worku came to the U.S. in 2004.

 In return for testifying against Alemu Worku, prosecutors have promised that Habteab Berhe and his siblings will not be prosecuted for lying during the immigration process, Taylor said.

 Golla said that the evidence will show that Habteab Berhe and his family members "engaged in deceit in order to come to the United States."

Kiflu Ketema, 58, who spent 18 months at the prison, reported to federal authorities in 2012 that Alemu Worku was living in the U.S., after his brother told him he had seen the parking attendant at the Cozy Cafe, an Aurora restaurant.

 When Ketema, who is expected to testify, arrived at the cafe, he spotted Alemu Worku, believed to be in his late 60s, outside the restaurant, he said in a recent interview. His appearance and even his voice had changed little.

When Ketema confronted him, the man denied being Alemu Worku. "He said, "No, maybe it could have been my brother,' " Ketema remembered.

 Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


 Victim of Ethiopia's Red Terror testifies that man tried for immigration lies was brutal 

By Tom McGhee
The Denver Post

Posted: 10/08/2013 01:30:48 PM MDT | Updated: about 2 hours ago

 A witness in the trial of an immigrant accused of lying to gain entrance to the U.S. broke down repeatedly Tuesday as he described beatings he saw at the Ethiopian prison where the man was allegedly a guard.

Kiflu Ketema, 58, who spent 18 months at the "Higher 15" prison in Addis Ababa, said Kefelgn Alemu Worku was the most feared man in the prison, where guards routinely tortured and murdered political prisoners.

He and other prisoners were sometimes brought into an interrogation room to witness torture sessions, Ketema said. Through tears, he described watching as prisoners were beaten on the soles of their feet and burned with cigarettes.

"It was horrible," he said.

But beatings weren't confined to the interrogation room, and prisoners, who were packed in so tight they couldn't lie down, were never free of fear.

Alemu Worku was the most brutal of all the guards, he said. "He was a big fish, he was the most feared person in 'Higher 15,'" he said under questioning by Alemu Worku's lawyer, Matthew Golla.

 Ketema was imprisoned during the late 1970s, a period of political disruption in the East African country known as the Red Terror. During that time a Marxist military regime imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands.

 Golla asked Ketema how he could identify Alemu Worku after more than 30 years. The guard passed by him all of the time as he walked through the prison, Ketema responded.

 "I would have picked him out from a million persons," he said.

Among false statements that Alemu Worku is accused of making in applying for naturalization is the answer "no" he gave when asked if he had ever persecuted anyone because of race, religion of political opinion.


Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or


 Ethiopian immigrant admits being guard accused of killing prisoners

 By Tom McGhee
 The Denver Post

Updated: 07/11/2013 02:24:12 PM MDT

An Ethiopian immigrant known as John Doe admits in a letter to a federal judge that he is Kefelegn Alemu Worku, who prosecutors think tortured and killed dozens of political prisoners in his home country in the 1970s.

Worku, who was living in the metro area under the name Habteab Berhe Temanu, has been behind bars for almost 11 months on charges that he lied on immigration documents.

"I am not Habteab Berhe Temanu or 'John Doe,' " Worku said in a handwritten letter to Senior U.S. District Judge John Kane dated June 23 and filed in the Doe case.

"My name is Kefelegne-Alemu-Worku. ... I lied to U.S. gov't officials and I accepted documents that were not rightfully mine. This was wrong and I apologize for my errors I simpley wanted to live in America."

Prosecutors say they think that Worku took part in Ethiopia's Red Terror, a purge of those suspected of opposing a Marxist regime that seized power in the 1970s. It isn't known how many Ethiopians were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed during the period, but some estimates reach into the hundreds of thousands.

Worku is scheduled to be tried in U.S. District Court in Denver on Aug. 12. Instead of going to trial, he wants to plead guilty at a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

And he wants to do so despite what his public defenders say, he said in the letter. "With this letter I plead guilty to count one and three regardless of my attorneys intervention."

 His lawyer, Matthew C. Golla, didn't return a call for comment.

Kane has already made clear that he won't rely on recommended federal sentencing guidelines, which would amount to time served, in sentencing Worku.

"I am an old man. I have already passed extra four months more valuable to me than the young man," Worku said in a second letter to Kane, dated July 3.

In 2001, a British Broadcasting Corporation report, citing Ethiopian media, said a former guard at the prison, Kefelegn Alemu, was convicted in absentia of participating in the deaths of 101 people. He was ordered hanged if he were ever found.

Worku entered the United States as early as 2002, according to a court document. Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors are not sure about Worku's age.

Worku had been working as a parking attendant in the Denver area, and he was arrested in 2012 after someone recognized him at a restaurant in Aurora.

Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 


 Red Terror in Ethiopia killed thousands between 1976 and 1978

Between 1976 and 1978, a Marxist government in Ethiopia killed as many as 500,000 of the country's citizens in a bloodbath called the Red Terror.

The terror grew out of a relatively peaceful movement to end the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. A political vacuum was created when the emperor was deposed by a military junta in 1974 and a council of military members known as the Derg took over.

The Marxist government abolished the parliament, suspended the constitution and arrested the emperor, who died in custody. The Derg nationalized all land using the slogan "land to the tiller of the soil."

In 1976, the Derg began rounding up and killing those suspected of being members of a resistance movement. According to a website that memorializes victims of Africa's human rights atrocities, arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual assault became the norm.

Prisoners were burned, flogged, hung by the arms, according to . People had fingernails ripped out, and men had their testicles crushed.

Kiflu Ketema, who was imprisoned at Kefetegna 15, a makeshift prison in Addis Ababa, said he saw guards attach newspapers to fellow prisoners' backs and set them on fire.

He saw others whipped, and he often heard gunshots ring out as executions were conducted outside the makeshift cells, the website said.

Bodies were dumped on the street outside the prison, Ketema said.

Children became targets, and in 1978 Save the Children protested that kids, many under 13, were being killed.

By the end of the 1980s, the regime was losing financial and military support from the Soviet Union. Long-standing liberation movements consolidated forces, forming the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


In 1991, the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa and took control of the country.


 Denver metro area home to 30,000 Ethiopians, Eritreans

As America counted down to the bicentennial of its Declaration of Independence in 1976, Yoseph Tafari was taking the first steps toward winning his own freedom. The 21-year-old organizer in the anti-Marxist movement in Ethiopia staggered alone toward the Sahara Desert, the mountains of his native Ethiopia shrinking behind him with each stride.

To escape the military junta that had marked him for death, Tafari spent four days in the wilderness, until goatherds found him and took him to the dry riverbed that marked the Sudan border near Kurmuk.

He risked death because death seemed certain.

"It's not death that you fear," he explained. "It's the torture. These were very brutal people."

Like other refugees, Tafari never returned, though he continues to look back in his mind.

A bloody, 17-year civil war that began in 1974 drove a mass migration to the United States. Church groups helped at least 2,700 refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, the province that split off after the war ended in 1991, resettle in Denver.

Others followed to join families, for education, for job opportunities. Today, activists and academics estimate there are more than 30,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans among the seven-county metro area's nearly 2.9 million people.

 As a group, Ethiopians have stitched together a vibrant piece of the city's social and commercial fabric. They own businesses, build ornate churches, send their kids to state colleges and live an American dream.

The Denver Ethiopian Yellow Pages includes 118 Ethiopian-owned businesses, and their 17 metro-area restaurants are fixtures not only for countrymen, but a trendy favorite of foodies as well.

But for all their growth and enterprise, Denver's newer demographic has struggled for cohesion, fragmented by 84 mostly tribal languages and dialects, old-country politics and

a determination to put their native country's troubled past behind them.

Earlier this month, the specter of Ethiopia's past re-emerged in Colorado. An aging Aurora parking lot attendant admitted in federal court that he was Kefelegne Alemu Worku, accused of participating in at least 101 deaths as a guard at a makeshift prison in the late 1970s, when thousands of Ethiopians were killed for political reasons.

He was recognized by a former prisoner at the Cozy Cafe, an Ethiopian eatery in Aurora, an amazing twist of fate.

 "Frankly, many people who came in contact with Worku on the opposite side didn't live to tell the story," said Peter Van Arsdale, a cultural anthropologist and director of the African Initiative at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies and author of "Forced to Flee: Human Rights and Human Wrongs in Refugee Homelands."

Until the civil war, Ethiopia was ruled by royalty who claimed lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, he said. That sense of dignity and pride has never left Ethiopia's cultural identity, Van Arsdale said.

"They are a people of kings and accomplishment," he said.

The character of Colorado's Ethiopian community, he said, is reflected well in a legend about the Battle of Adwa in 1896, when citizens took the high ground above the city and fought off the well-armed Italian army by throwing rocks and tumbling boulders, a great shame for Italy and a message to other invaders. Ethiopia is the only African country never conquered or colonized by outsiders.

"They are industrious persons with a very rich history of hard work and making the most with modest resources," Van Arsdale said. "They've done that same thing here in Colorado."

Ericka Haile, a website engineer who came to Colorado as a toddler in the early 1980s, says her generation of immigrants is "just like every other American."

"Ethiopians here want the same thing everybody else does: work, a nice family, a future," she said.

Nebiyu Asfaw, a project manager for Verizon, community organizer and church leader, said most Ethiopian immigrants follow a template. Most arrive with little more than lint in their pockets. They work multiple low-paying jobs, save money, buy a home, start businesses and send their children to college. "That's expected," he said.

They cling tight to their faith from the land identified or referenced 56 times in the Bible.

 At Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo St. Mary's Church in Aurora on Sunday morning, Christian art from Ethiopia hung on the walls, and the pews displayed a mix of fashion, equally African and Anglo. A man in a baggy white linen outfit called a netela sat one row behind a man in a cowboy shirt and jeans before their communion with holy water rationed from a blue Igloo cooler.

In the hallway outside, a half-dozen women covered from the tops of their heads to below their ankles in one-piece wraps sat on the floor with their knees pulled to their chests and watched over children romping nearby.

"We assimilate very well, but we also maintain our identity," Asfaw said.

Like many successful Ethiopians, Feseha Wold, a customer service representative for the U.S. Treasury Department, looks ahead, not back. He has daily reminders of the horror he left behind — a glass eye and two stiff, disfigured legs from stepping on a land mine when he was a rebel fighter in 1978.

An Eritrean, he was a teacher who felt disgust with the communist regime's murderous campaign. He remembers a nomadic song "from the dark days" that glorified punishment of disobedient children. The government would play it on the radio before they announced who had been killed that day.

Wold has four children. As he spoke in the living room of his handsome townhome, his daughter Rita Wold, 26, sat at the dining room table and listened closely.

"I'm hearing some of this stuff for the first time," she said.

Her father explained: "I don't want to teach them the bad things, how the government can kill people and take things. I want them to learn the good culture here, the good social values America has."

He hesitates, then amends.

"There are good things there: the culture, the respect for seniors, taking advice, but my kids are Americans, so they walk away when I'm still talking; they don't even look in my eyes," Wold said.

Esubalew Johnston's journey to the United States in 1997 is rooted in a triumph over cruelty much like the Ethiopians who came to Colorado in the 1970s and '80s.

When he was 5 or 6, men from the capital city, Addis Ababa, came to his remote village, where he lived in a flimsy grass hut with his mother, grandmother and sister. They convinced his mother they would take him to a school.

Instead, they blinded him by putting poisonous tree sap in his eyes, and forced him to beg on the street, because blind children can earn the most. His future seemed hopeless, the 24-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver graduate said last week.

"You can cry, flail and scream or whatever, but all that's going to hear you is the hyenas,"

God intervened, he said.

A couple who ran a school for the blind rescued him, although his kidnappers were never captured.

The rescue led Johnston to a hospital for tuberculosis, the illness that killed his sister in his village, and eventually to adoptive parents in the United States and a school for the blind in Colorado.

Johnston is looking for a job and hopes to work with adopted children. He's determined to send money back to Ethiopia.

"I have family back home," he said. "They don't really know what America is, but they're counting on me. America gives you opportunities; that's why everybody in the world wants to come here.

"When I speak to adopted kids I tell them, 'Chase your dreams and your goals but don't ever forget where you came from.' "

 Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or