DENVER — A man identified as a brutal Ethiopian prison guard after a chance encounter at a suburban Denver restaurant could spend up to 22 years in a federal prison after his sentencing Friday for immigration fraud.
Kefelgn Alemu Worku (kah-FEH’-lun ah-LEE’-moo WER’-koo) was convicted in October of assuming another man’s identity and lying on U.S. immigration forms when he denied committing acts of political persecution.
At his trial, witnesses testified that Worku participated in beatings and torture at Higher 15, a detention center established during government-sponsored political violence in the late 1970s known as the Red Terror. Human Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have said thousands were killed.
Worku has not been charged in Denver with crimes related to the violence. But after he serves his U.S. sentence, he could face deportation to Ethiopia, where a high court in 2000 convicted him in absentia of genocide and sentenced him to death, U.S. prosecutors wrote in court documents.
The Ethiopian court found Worku “unjustly killed 101 . innocent individuals, and inflicted injury through torture,” the documents say.
Worku has acknowledged using a false name to get into the U.S. but denied the torture allegations.
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.
Witnesses at Worku’s immigration fraud trial spoke of being bound and beaten with cattle prods, electric wires, sticks and wood.
One woman said she was sent to the prison as a 16-year-old high school student in 1977 and interrogated about her political affiliations. She said she saw Worku shoot and kill three people, including a teenage boy, then order other prisoners to drink blood that pooled up on the floor.
Worku, whom authorities believe is in his 60s, was a member of the communist Derg regime that came to power over the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Prosecutors say he eventually took another man’s identity and came to the United States in 2004 from Kenya, where he was living as a refugee.
Worku lived in Denver for eight years before a former Higher 15 prisoner recognized him in 2011 at an Ethiopian restaurant and alerted law enforcement. The man told authorities Worku was a “big fish” at Higher 15 and that he was “the most feared.”
Worku’s federal public defender, Matthew Golla, did not return calls seeking comment. Golla has questioned how witnesses could accurately identify Worku more than 30 years after the events at the Ethiopian prison.
Although Worku was sentenced to death in Ethiopia, there is no record of that country having carried out executions of other former Derg members, prosecutors wrote.
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