DENVER — Federal agents arrested an Ethiopian immigrant suspected of torturing political prisoners decades ago in his home country, prosecutors said Friday.
Three former Ethiopian political prisoners identified the man as Kefelegn Alemu Worku (kah-FEH’-lun ah-LEE’-moo WER’-koo), saying he brutally mistreated them and others in the late 1970s, authorities said.
He is being held on immigration charges, and federal agents said they were investigating a report that he was involved in atrocities that occurred in Ethiopia following a military coup that plunged the nation into turmoil, marked by arrests, tortures and executions.
All three former prisoners, now U.S. citizens living in Denver, picked the suspect out of a photo lineup, the U.S. attorney’s office said. They told investigators that the man they identified as Worku was a guard at a prison in Ethiopia where they were held.
He was arrested Aug. 24. His attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. The arrest was first reported by KUSA-TV.
The suspect has been charged with unlawfully procuring citizenship or naturalization and aggravated identity theft. If convicted of both charges, he faces up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said no one was available to comment.
Two of the former prisoners who identified the man as Worku said he beat them and subjected them to gruesome torture. The third said he witnessed the suspect abusing other prisoners. The men are identified only by initials in court documents.
Prosecutors said the suspect used several names. They say he entered the U.S. using a stolen identity and falsified paperwork and illegally achieved U.S. citizenship in 2010.
Officials won’t decide whether to attempt to deport the man until the immigration and identity theft charges are resolved, said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Denver.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or when the man left Ethiopia. Another Ethiopian immigrant in Denver told investigators the suspect lived in Kenya for several years before entering the U.S.
The suspect is about 68 years old and has been living in a Denver apartment under the name of Habteab Berhe Temanu, prosecutors said. They declined to say how he had been supporting himself.
Dorschner said no picture of the suspect will be released because investigators may still ask others to identify him from a photo lineup.
A court hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday.
The man was a regular at the Cozy Cafe in Denver, which serves Ethiopian food, said Girma Baye, the restaurant manager.
Baye said he knew nothing of the accusations against the man and that the arrest came as a shock to him and others.
“If I knew anything about his past, he would not be long in the United States,” Baye said.
Baye described him as “a happy, social person” and a “nice guy.”
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