DENVER — An Ethiopian immigrant who prosecutors suspect tortured and killed dozens of political prisoners in his home country in the 1970s has decided to proceed to trial on immigration charges.
Kefelegne Alemu Worku, who was living in the Denver area under the name Habteab Berhe Temanu, is charged with unlawfully procuring citizenship or naturalization, and aggravated identity theft. If convicted of both counts, he could face up to 12 years in prison and fines up to $500,000. He has not been charged in Denver with any crimes related to prison abuse.
Court records show Worku was prepared to plead guilty to the charges but decided to proceed to trial Thursday after a federal judge said he would be subject to deportation if he pleaded guilty, The Denver Post reported (http://bit.ly/1avd5sS).
The man had sent a handwritten letter dated June 23 to U.S. District Judge John Kane saying he had lied to U.S. government officials about his identity and knows it was wrong, according to court records.
"My name is Kefelegne-Alemu-Worku. ... I lied to U.S. gov't officials and I accepted documents that were not rightfully mine," according to documents filed in federal court. "This was wrong and I apologize for my errors ...," he wrote, adding he simply wanted to live in America.
Worku's lawyer has denied that his client was a guard at an Ethiopian prison known for atrocities and human rights abuses.
"He denies all of it," Matthew Golla, a federal public defender, said in September when his client was arrested on immigration charges. Golla did not return a phone call Thursday from The Associated Press seeking further comment.
Golla said his client had lived peacefully in Denver for more than eight years and should be released.
Established during the late 1970s in a campaign known as the Red Terror, the Ethiopian prison was called "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa" by the global watchdog group Human Rights Watch.
Homeland Security Agent Jeffrey Lembke previously said a prison guard had been spotted in May 2011 in a suburban Denver restaurant by a former prisoner. The man went to authorities with his suspicions.
Two other Ethiopian immigrants who also say they were held at the prison identified the guard in a photo lineup, authorities said. The three immigrants told authorities the guard participated in beatings and torture sessions that included a cattle prod, rifle butts, whips and pipes.