ATLANTA – An Ethiopian immigrant suspected of torturing and murdering dissidents in a military dictatorship in Ethiopia (search) during the 1970s was arrested Tuesday by federal agents and faces deportation.
Kelbessa Negewo (search), 54, remains in federal custody and will face a deportation hearing before an immigration judge in the next several weeks, said Ken Smith, special agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (search). He was taken into custody in the Atlanta suburb of Union City.
He faces life in prison in his former homeland, where he was convicted in absentia. He was also the target of a civil case in the early 1990s.
Negewo's wife, Athana Negussie, said she and her husband were sleeping when federal agents knocked on the door, "handcuffed him and took him away." Negussie said her husband does not have an attorney but claimed he is innocent.
Negewo fled to the United States in 1988 after being released from prison in Ethiopia and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
Negewo renounced his citizenship in October after the government moved to strip him of it, and that opened the door for the arrest and deportation proceedings, Smith said. No federal charges are planned against him, he said.
Officials allege that during the 1970s, Negewo was part of a military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia. They say that in his role as chairman of a special government unit, he was responsible for having numerous civilians — mostly students — incarcerated, tortured and executed by firing squad.
Homeland security officials say Negewo lied about his human rights violations to obtain U.S. citizenship.
In April 2002, the Ethiopian government convicted Negewo in absentia of human rights violations including torture and 13 killings. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
In 1993, a U.S. district judge ordered Negewo to pay $1.5 million to three women who testified that he tortured them during Ethiopia's "Red Terror" campaign of 1977-78. The women said they were stripped, hung upside down from a pole and beaten.
One of the three had recognized Negewo when both worked at an Atlanta hotel.
Negewo denied the charges and claimed he didn't know the women, while accusing them of belonging to a violent political group. Negewo came to this country under political asylum and pointed out that he himself had been imprisoned after falling out with the regime.
Smith said the U.S. government made a mistake in 1995 when it granted Negewo citizenship while knowing of his past. "That significantly complicated his removal from the United States," Smith said.
Negewo remained in custody at an undisclosed location
Negussie said her husband of eight years "didn't kill people. He's honest person. They just accused him. I know him."
"I don't know what to do. I have a 4-year-old daughter. I don't have any money. I'm going to kill myself. What can I do?" she said.