17 February 2014

Rwanda: Verdict Awaited in Germany's First Rwandan Genocide Trial

Photo: United Nations
Rwandan children, refugees of the 1994 genocide.

A court in Frankfurt is to pass a verdict in the case of a former Rwandan mayor accused of organizing one of the massacres in the 1994 genocide. He had sought asylum in Germany and denies the charges.

In the bare Frankfurt courtroom, the horrifying events of April 11, 1994 were being recalled. Witnesses told how they had sought safety from the Hutu militia by fleeing to a church in Kiziguro.

They told how the militia had attacked the church killing as many as 1,200 people, how the survivors were forced to throw the dead into a well, and then to jump to their deaths after them.

It is an historic trial which comes to an end on Tuesday (18.02.2013). This will be the first time that a German court has handed down judgment in a case involving the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi minority. In 1994, Rwandan Hutu extremists slaughtered three quarters of all Tutsis and many moderate Hutus within 100 days. Twenty years later Onesphore Rwabukombe awaits his verdict. The former mayor of Kiziguro is accused of organizing, ordering and monitoring that church massacre.

Under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, genocide can be punished anywhere in the world, not only in the country in which it was committed. Rwabukombe has lived in Germany since 2002 and has been in custody here since 2010.

Prosecutors call for life sentence

Prosecutors are calling for a life sentence for him. Dieter Magsam, a lawyer representing the victims, said witnesses have confirmed that the accused was at the scene of the massacre. "He took part and drove people with his official car to the church grounds." They then attacked with axes and machetes.

It will be mostly witness testimony that will decide the outcome of this trial. The court had witnesses flown to Germany, others, who were imprisoned in Rwanda, delivered their testimony via video link to the Frankfurt court room. Natalie von Wistinghausen is one of Rwabukombe's lawyers. "We believe that these testimonies were all intended to cast guilt on the accused, because as mayor he was the only official in authority around at the time," she said. Wistinghausen and fellow defense lawyer Kersten Woweries are calling for their client to be acquitted.

Rwandan specialist Gerd Hankel was in court as an expert witness. He has also taken part in several trials in Rwanda itself. "Widely held assumptions frequently prevail," he said. In other words, everybody who was a member of the political elite at the time of the genocide was actively involved in orchestrating it.

Is a German court capable of reaching a more impartial verdict? "The problem is that a German court would have to mentally transpose itself to Rwanda," Hankel said. German judges, who previously knew little about Rwanda, are having to explore the broad historical context within which the genocide took place. They have to examine the mentality, the credibility of witnesses who could either incriminate or exonerate the suspect. This involves a huge amount of work for German judges and exposes them to all manner of disinformation, targeted or otherwise.

Was Germany the right place for this trial?

The court was forced to examine whether the Rwandan government could have tried to influence witness testimony. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is himself a Tutsi. His rebel forces brought the genocide to an end in July 1994 and then assumed power in the country. Kagame runs an autocratic regime. Those who openly question the wisdom of his policies - or the official version of the country's recent history - run the risk of being arrested.

The defense believes that Germany was not the right place to pass judgment on crimes that were committed in Rwanda. "Our system is simply not suited to clearing up what really happened, even though everybody put in a lot of effort," said von Wistinghausen. She referred in this connection to the work done by others - in particular by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. Magsam, who represented the victims, would also have preferred to have seen the former mayor tried by a Rwanda court.

Expert witness Gerd Hankel is more optimistic and evidently has more confidence in the German legal system. But he believes the court should have a displayed a more intense interest in Rwanda from the very beginning. "The judges should have visited the country, looked at the scene of the crime and spoken to Rwandans," he said.

Suspected Hutu extremists and their supporters are also on trial in two other cases in Germany, in Dusseldorf and Stuttgart.

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