30 September 2011

Rwanda: Tribunal Sends Two Former Ministers to Prison

Photo: United Nations
Rwandan children, refugees of the 1994 genocide (file photo).

Two former Rwandan ministers were jailed Friday for 30 years by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for involvement in the central African country's 1994 genocide.

Former public service minister Prosper Mugiraneza and his then trade counterpart Justin Mugenzi were convicted of complicity to commit genocide and incitement to commit genocide. The Tanzania-based UN tribunal however acquitted two other ministers - Casimir Bizimungu and Jérôme-Clément Bicamumpaka - due to lack of evidence. The judges ordered their immediate release.

Judge Emile Short issued a dissenting opinion on the sentence, saying Mugiraneza and Mugenzi deserved a reduction of five years for violation of right to trial without undue delay.

The four men were members of an interim government that ran the country after president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, an event that triggered 100 days of massacres. The genocide killed an estimated 800 thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Demanding life sentences for the four men in November 2008, prosecutors said the ministers blazed a "path to hell" for Tutsis. "They had no intention to stop the massacres." On the contrary, prosecutor Paul Ng'arua told the judges. "They poured oil on the flames" through "incendiary speeches", some of which were relayed on the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio station. The prosecutors' main argument was that wherever the ministers went "they were soon followed by blood-letting and displacement of Tutsi populations."

Slow trial

Jérome Bicamumpaka never expected to be tried by the ICTR.

It is five years after the start of the genocide in his home country. For Bicamumpaka, 6 April 1999 is just like any other day. He goes to work in Mbalmayo, close to Cameroon's capital Yaoundé. But then the police show up at his office and arrest him.

He is kept in a Cameroonian prison until he is transferred to Tanzania. On the same plane are two other genocide suspects, arrested on the same day. The Chief Prosecutor at the time, Louise Arbour, welcomed the arrests "with great satisfaction", but the first time Bicamumpaka sees a judge is a long four months later.

Because he is not allowed to hire the lawyer of his choice, Bicamumpaka refuses to enter a plea to an indictment that was confirmed by Navi Pillay, then an ICTR judge and now the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The case is one of the tribunal's joint cases and better known as Government II. Bicamumpaka's co-accused - former civil service minister Prosper Mugiraneza and former trade minister Justin Mugenzi - state they do not have anything to do with genocide and crimes against humanity committed in 1994. A fourth suspect, the former doctor and health minister Casimir Bizumungu, enters his not guilty plea one month later because his lawyer cannot make it to Arusha on time. He was arrested at his home in Nairobi in February 1999.

Scheduled to start on 3 November 2003, the four men await their trial in a UN prison in the dusty town of Arusha. But the court adjourns because of the absence of Mugiraneza's lawyers. Slowness proves to be typical of the ICTR. The judges only visit the crime scenes in Rwanda for the first time in October 2008, just a month before the end of the trial, in which 171 witnesses were heard. It then took the judges another three years to draft their judgement.

Long trials

Mugiraneza - who has a law degree - has tried in vain to get his case dropped on the basis of the court's slow progress and for "violation of right to trial without undue delay." Two judges rejected this motion in June 2010, while in contrast a third said that in his opinion the accused's rights had indeed been violated and that his sentence should be reduced if found guilty and he should receive compensation if he is acquitted.

Twenty of those indicted by the ICTR have spent ten years or more in jail before judgement by a trial chamber. The Government II case is not even the most extreme example. In June, the longest trial came to end when six people from south Rwanda were sent to prison on long sentences, among them were Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and her son. Their trial - dubbed the 'Butare Six' - took ten years and ten days and only loyal defence lawyers and presiding judge William Sekule attended all 726 trial days.

The case broke all records: it is the longest and slowest trial in international justice so far. Probably, it is also the most expensive. Moreover, Joseph Kanyabashi and Elie Ndayambaje were arrested in June 1995 and their judgement was delivered seventeen years later. The case is now on appeal.

Then there was the case of four senior officers of the Rwandan army who were convicted on 17 May. In this case, it took two years after the end of the trial for the ICTR judges to rule on the case. Among the convicted was General Ndindiliyimana. He was found guilty of genocide but sentenced to "time served since he was arrested in Belgium, on 29 January 2000." Upon conviction, Ndindiliyimana was immediately released but had to live in a safe house in Arusha because he no longer had any valid papers.

Why it takes so long...

Disagreement between defence parties in big trials and incredibly slow questioning of witnesses are the main reasons. These are typical of the tribunal that was established by the UN Security Council only four months after the massacres - with only Rwanda voting against its establishment. But justice is slow, very expensive and far away from the rest of the world. The heart of the prosecutor's evidence lies in the minds of Rwandans. Hundreds of witnesses have travelled to Arusha to share their stories. But most of them remain unknown. They give evidence behind a pale blue curtain that separates the courtroom from the public gallery.

Also the tribunal is not very popular in Rwanda. At the small information centre in Kigali you will only find a handful of lawyers, while the local ICTR offices are fenced off from the outside world. But above all, Arusha is too far to travel to and for ordinary Rwandans it is hard to follow the academic debates in the courtrooms. People also do not understand why the international community has spent already more that 1,5 billion dollars on trying the elite.

But the tribunal - which has to close its doors in 2014- has had its successes as well. It was the first international court to convict someone of genocide, when it sentenced Jean Paul Akayesu to life imprisonment in 1998. The prosecutors also managed to bring a broad variety of "big fishes" to Arusha. 83 genocide suspects were brought to Tanzania, including politicians, army leaders and militiamen. And it has also managed to convict an historian, two journalists and the popular singer Simon Bikindi.

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