It was just a passing encounter in Colorado three years ago, but it caused an Ethiopian immigrant to do a double take.
The Homeland Security Investigations directorate of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) soon had a new informant, one who knew all too well whom he’d spotted.
He told the agency that the man he’d seen was unmistakably Kefelegn Alemu Worku, a notorious prison guard during a period in the late 1970s known as the “Red Terror” in Ethiopia. Worku was described as responsible for beating, torturing and in some cases executing hundreds of political prisoners. The witness was among prisoners who survived.
And Worku, who had slipped into the United States in 2004, was living in an apartment in Denver.
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On May 23rd, Worku was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison following his arrest and conviction on charges of unlawful procurement of U.S. citizenship or naturalization, aggravated identity theft and fraud and misuse of visas, permits or other documents.
Should Worku, described as being about 62 years of age, ever be released from prison, he will be turned over to ICE for deportation proceedings, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security said.
Worku had falsely applied in November 2009 for naturalization under the name Habteab Berhe Temanu and made false statements, including answering “No” to the question: “Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or public opinion.”
In the late 1970s in Ethiopa, Mengistu Haile Mariam seized control of a committee of Ethiopian military officers known as the Dergue, which established a Marxist regime and abolished Ethiopia’s Constitution. The new government arrested the former emperor and members of the imperial government.
In 1977, Mengistu unleashed a two-year campaign that came to be known as “Red Terror” – the roundup of tens of thousands of Ethiopian men, women and children suspected of being members or supporters of an opposition group. Many of them were tortured and summarily executed.
One prison, “Kebele 15,” or “Kefetegna 15,” translated as “higher 15,” held about 1,500 prisoners, many of whom were tortured and executed. That’s where the witness was sent in 1978, he told authorities, and that’s where he said he witnessed Worku torture fellow prisoners and learned that he and other guards executed other prisoners. The informant escaped in 1979.
Two other Ethiopian refugees who are now naturalized U.S. citizens testified at the sentencing that they also identified the defendant as Worku and recounted how he had participated in beating and torturing them at the prison during the same time period.