DENVER (AP) — A brutal Ethiopian jail guard who tortured and killed dozens of people during government-sponsored violence in the 1970s should spend 22 years in prison for immigration crimes, a federal judge ruled Friday, saying the United States cannot become a refuge for human-rights violators.
"The risk that this country becomes regarded as a safe haven for violators of human rights is such that the maximum sentence is required," U.S. District Judge John L. Kane said in sentencing Kefelgn Alemu Worku (kah-FEH'-lun ah-LEE'-moo WER'-koo) for immigration fraud.
Worku was convicted of assuming another man's identity and lying on U.S. immigration forms by denying he committed acts of political persecution. He lived quietly in the Denver area for eight years until 2011, when another Ethiopian recognized him outside a cafe and confronted him with the words, "I think I know you."
"The relatively harmless lifestyle he has had in the United States does not change the character law of psychopathy," Kane said after hearing from two witnesses who said Worku routinely beat them and others at Higher 15, a detention center established during the political violence in Ethiopia known as the Red Terror.
Human Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have said thousands of people were killed.
In rambling testimony before he was sentenced, Worku denied the abuse claims as exaggeration.
"If I was who they are accusing me of being — a monster — I don't deserve to live," Worku said in a scratchy voice, wearing beige prison scrubs and speaking through an interpreter. "I wasn't that kind of a monster. I didn't have that kind of authority."
But Abebech Demissie, who said she was a 16-year-old high school student in 1977 when she was taken to the prison, told the judge she watched Worku shoot and kill people, including a teenage boy, then order other prisoners to "clean the blood off the floor with anything we could find, including our tongues."
More than once, she said, Worku pointed an AK-47 assault rifle at her head but spared her life, making it hard for her to testify against him. But his refusal to accept responsibility -- and what she described as his arrogant smirk -- reminded her he was not a changed man.
"The defendant is still a bloodthirsty monster who would commit the same crimes if put in a similar situation today," Demissie testified. "He must be removed from society for the longest possible time."
Worku's public defender, Matthew Golla, argued he had undergone a "metamorphosis" since living as a refugee in Kenya and then working as a law-abiding parking attendant at Denver International Airport. He stole another man's identity and used it to gain American citizenship. Golla said he helped the children of the other man, who was dying.
"He appears to me to be a nice, warm person," Golla said.
Samuel Ketema, who spotted Worku and told authorities, wiped tears as he listened from the front row. When Worku spoke, he silently shook his head.
Federal sentencing guidelines recommended zero to 18 months for Worku's immigration violations. But Kane said sticking within that range would be absurd given Worku's past.
Worku, believed to be in his 60s, has not been charged in this country with crimes related to the violence. Once a member of the Marxist Derg regime, an Ethiopian high court in 2000 convicted him in absentia of genocide and sentenced him to death.
If he survives his U.S. prison term, Worku could be deported to his homeland, though there is no record of that country having carried out executions of other former Derg members.
After the hearing, Demissie and Ketema said they were relieved. Ketema was speechless.
"There is justice in this," Demissie said. "It's like a big burden has been lifted from my shoulders."
The U.S. Justice Department has used Worku's case to encourage refugees to report human-rights abusers hiding in plain sight.
The department's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions unit says it has secured convictions against a former Guatemalan officer who hid his role in a 1982 massacre; an ex-Salvadoran colonel who lied on immigration forms about his actions during that country's civil war; and a Bosnian man who admitted concealing his affiliation in a military brigade that committed atrocities against Muslims.