24 June 2011

Rwanda: Former Minister Becomes First Ever Female Genocide Convict

The international Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has just announced guilty verdicts in a case involving a woman minister of the interim Rwandan Government which presided over the 1994 genocide: 65 year-old Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, formerly the Minister of Family and Women's Affairs.

Pauline is the first woman ever convicted of genocide by an international court, and also the first to be found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity.

Witnesses saw her at roadblocks and at the local prefecture office in Butare, where she encouraged the kidnap, rape, torture and killing of Tutsis who had fled there believing the authorities would save them from the genocide.

Originally a social worker on AIDS prevention, Pauline was fully aware of the use of AIDS as a means to destroy life slowly and painfully. According to witnesses, she gave orders for the ‘nicest young girls’ to be selected to be raped. Some were kept for weeks as sex slaves, being raped multiple times each day before being eventually killed and thrown into large mass graves. Another witness told how she had instigated the Interahamwe militia to rape, kill and burn 70 Tutsi women and girls, using petrol she had in jerry cans in her truck.

Pauline’s son, Shalom Ntahobali, was one of four co-defendants on trial with her, all of whom have today been convicted of rape and genocide.

Survivors welcome guilty verdict

“It’s shocking that this mother and former social worker, trained to protect life, could instead have been responsible for such appalling crimes,” says Freddy Mutanguha, Rwandan Country Director for the Aegis Trust, the genocide prevention organisation responsible for the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Situated alongside mass graves containing the remains of around 250,000 people murdered during the genocide, it is today a place of remembrance and education for a new generation in Rwanda. Himself a survivor, Freddy lost most of his immediate family in the genocide.

Heavily pregnant when the genocide started, Winifred was bound, tortured, gang-raped and left for dead by Interahamwe militia who were egged on by neighbouring women, including one who still lives in a street near her home in Kigali today.

Her baby was born soon after the attack, but unable to protect it, she could only watch as it was savaged and then eaten by dogs. “No measure of justice will ever take away the pain in my heart,” she says, “but today’s convictions represent an important acknowledgement of the crimes committed against us in 1994.” Winifred was infected with HIV-AIDS through the rape. She and her remaining son – who, aged ten, witnessed everything that happened to his mother – are among the survivors now being supported by the Aegis Trust’s Social Programme in Rwanda.

“This is one of the most horrific trials to have come before the ICTR in its 16-year history,” says Dr Andrew Wallis, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, recently returned from the ICTR. “The genocide in Rwanda saw not just women victims but also women as perpetrators – organizing and acting out cruel, degrading and terrible pain against their ‘enemies’.

“It’s now important that Pauline’s friend and advocate, Agathe Habyarimana, living a comfortable retirement in France despite charges against her of being a leading organizer of the genocide, is fully investigated by the French Judiciary.”

Today’s verdicts mark the end of a ten-year trial for Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and her son, following their arrest in Kenya in 1997.

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