Arusha — "Scandalous decisions, alarming acquittals, professional errors", these are some of the terms used by Kigali about the Appeals Chamber of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Twenty years after the genocide, the Rwandan authorities accuse the ICTR Appeals Chamber of "rubbing salt into the wounds".
Rwandan criticism is directed particularly at the current president of the Appeals Chamber, American judge Theodor Meron. In a petition last month to the president of the UN Security Council, 15 Rwandan civil society organizations expressed "serious concerns" about ICTR Appeals Chamber decisions under Meron. In particular, they decried the Chamber's February 11, 2014 acquittal of two former senior officers of the Rwandan Armed Forces who had been convicted by the lower court.
Former head of the gendarmerie Augustin Ndindiliyimana had been sentenced in May 2011 to 11 years in jail for genocide and crimes against humanity. François-Xavier Nzuwonemeye, who commanded an elite unit of the army, was sentenced to 20 years.
Their acquittal by the Appeals Chamber came two years after that of two former ministers who had also been convicted by the lower court. "We demand that you conduct a serious investigation on professional conduct and real motives of Judge Meron," wrote the 15 Rwandan organizations. They said that while they recognized the "noble justice work done by ICTR", this work was "at risk of being negatively affected by a Chamber Presided over by a judge who may be pursuing a hidden agenda".
The petitioners further say that "it is disquieting to note that in all cases it has handled, all those known and accused of planning the genocide against Tutsi, no one has been convicted of this act of planning. Can genocide happen unplanned?"
The acquittals of Ndindiliyimana and Nzuwonemeye also brought indignation from the spokesperson of Rwanda's National Public Prosecution Authority, Alain Mukuralinda. In an article entitled "How ICTR has let down Rwanda", the private New Times newspaper in Kigali quoted him as saying that "we may find evidence linking the Presiding Judge to these alarming acquittals". Ibuka, the main genocide survivors' organization, also protested the acquittals. "Especially on the eve of the 20th commemoration of the genocide, it is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the victims," commented Ibuka Executive Secretary Naphtal Ahishakiye.
Ibuka's disappointment was all the greater since it had also been unhappy with the lower court judgment, deeming the sentences too light. Ibuka and the British Survivors Fund (SURF) had asked to be heard by the Appeals Court to give their opinion on the sentences, but their request was rejected by the Appeals Chamber.
In their rejected request, Ibuka and SURF also drew attention to another trial of Rwandan former army officers (dubbed "Military I") in which the Appeals judges "drastically reduced" the sentences imposed by the lower court. Théoneste Bagosora, who was Cabinet Director at the Rwandan Defence Ministry and presented by the prosecution as the main architect of the genocide, saw his sentence cut from life imprisonment to 35 years. Lieutenant Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva, who was also given a life sentence by the lower court, saw his reduced to 15 years. Since this was almost equivalent to the time already spent in preventive detention, he was released soon afterwards.
"Inefficiency and incompetence"
Criticism has also come from the Rwandan parliament. In a report published at the beginning of March, the Rwandan Senate deemed the ICTR generally "inefficient and incompetent", although it nevertheless recognized that the Tribunal had contributed to fighting impunity and in the setting up of international justice.
The Senate said the Tribunal has "a mixed record in the eyes of Rwandans," has made "questionable acquittals," was slow despite being well-funded, and has a history of handling witnesses poorly.
"The ICTR has the unfortunate reputation of being inefficient and incompetent, and has had serious problems applying the international norms advocated by the UN," the report said.
ICTR officials prefer to comment on these accusations in private. "Our job is to say what the law says, nothing else. Judge Meron and all the other judges of the Tribunal are professional, experienced, independent magistrates who do not receive orders from any government, any institution or even the Security Council," a member of the ICTR Registry told Hirondelle on condition of anonymity.
Relations between the ICTR and Rwanda have often been difficult. The biggest crisis was in 2009 when the Rwandan government suspended cooperation with the Tribunal following an ICTR Appeals Chamber decision freeing a former Foreign Ministry official,
Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza. The ICTR's activities were paralyzed for several months as witnesses stopped coming from Rwanda. Carla Del Ponte, who was ICTR Prosecutor at the time, argued "new facts" to get the decision reversed, and the order to free Barayagwiza was overturned in March 2000.