Rwanda: 'They Were Founders of a Ruthless Militia in Kigali'

Gaëlle Ponselet, a journalist who has been specializing on judicial news for some 10 years, covers a large number of trials taking place in Brussels, whether they be conflicts between companies at the commercial court, criminal cases in the criminal court or recent terrorist trials in Belgium. For her, attending trials is being at the source of information and the certainty of being able to hear both sides of the story.

Pierre Basabosé and Séraphin Twahirwa were behind a group of murderous Interahamwe in the Gikondo sector of Kigali in 1994. This was the Belgian prosecutor's conclusion presented on Monday December 4 at the end of their trial before the Brussels Assize Court. Basabosé was the militia's "financier", while Twahirwa "led" the militia, according to the prosecutor.

Standing in her red gown, the magistrate delivered her closing arguments before the Brussels Assize Court for six hours. Prosecutor Kathleen Grosjean is convinced that the two Rwandan defendants are intimately linked. The softness of her voice did not dampen her uppercuts. They were two major genocide perpetrators, she said, founders of a particularly murderous Interahamwe militia in Kigali - two men who complemented each other in a criminal enterprise, the first giving orders and the second behind the scenes ensuring the militia remained operational.

This is the prosecution's case: Séraphin Twahirwa, 65, nephew of President Juvénal Habyarimana, and Pierre Basabosé, 76, a former soldier and wealthy shopkeeper from the capital Kigali, recruited "idle youths", trained them to handle weapons, maintained them and encouraged them to commit murders in the Gikondo sector.

"Together they ran an elite Interahamwe militia, which they trained and armed. They called it 'OPS Karambo'. They were the founders of this ruthless militia, sometimes reinforced by the Presidential Guard," the prosecutor told the court. "The entire Gikondo area was a powder keg because of the two defendants. Each in his respective role enabled the existence of this militia, which was responsible for numerous murders, attempted murders, rape and pillage. The militiamen absorbed all the hatred that the accused distilled."

Two men of influence

The two men, she explained to the jury, "were not just anybody". Their social status "was the basis on which they were going to commit the crimes". "Pierre Basabosé is an old man today, who doesn't understand much anymore [he suffers from senile dementia], but the acts on trial were committed when he was in his right mind," she said. At the time, he had a large grocery shop and a foreign exchange office where all Kigali came. He had also made a fortune trading in cobalt. Before that, in the army, he had been a driver for Colonel Elie Sagatwa, brother-in-law of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana.

As for Twahirwa, the prosecutor said he had tried to make a good impression, but his attitude at the hearing gave him away, revealing his authoritarian personality. "He looks at his mobile phone when a female witness talks about the rape he inflicted on her, he sneers during other testimony, he tries to ask the witnesses questions himself, he stands up when he is not allowed to," she noted. Several witnesses confirmed that he was a nephew of President Juvénal Habyarimana - Habyarimana's wife, Agathe Kanziga, had been brought up with her father - and that he boasted of this relationship.

''Accusing Rwandan witnesses of lying is a cliché''

To back her accusations against the two Rwandans accused of war crimes and genocide, who came to Belgium in late 1990-early 2000, the prosecutor cited the words of several witnesses, adding that "apart from a few dissenting voices, the majority of the testimony is consistent". She defended the investigation conducted by Judge Ludivine Kerzmann, dismissing any suspicions that the authorities in Kigali had manipulated the witnesses. "The investigating judge came here to explain how she was able to work. She could hear anyone she wanted, go anywhere she wanted," said the prosecutor.

"I have rarely seen so much manoeuvring to distract us from the substance of the case,'' she continued. ''Lawyers have grilled witnesses on details. They have tried to distract them from what they were saying, made them repeat certain statements several times so that they contradicted themselves, and tried to irritate the witnesses. These are attempts to poison the trial. Accusing Rwandan witnesses of lying is a cliché in all trials relating to the genocide in Rwanda. I call it low-level racism.''

She also dismissed claims that it has become too difficult to hold Rwandan genocide trials in Belgium because the events were too long ago, because the jury of ordinary citizens does not understand Rwandan culture, or because there is pressure on witnesses. Such claims are unfounded, she said, and are merely attempts to discredit the investigation.

Rape as a weapon of genocide

Speaking for the civil parties, lawyer Michèle Hirsch turned to Séraphin Twahirwa's image as a brutal sexual predator that has dogged him since the start of the trial. Several women have come forward to say that he raped them before or during the genocide. The court heard them behind closed doors. According to Hirsch, their number makes this trial special, because a "mass rapist" is at the centre of it. Around ten witnesses testified on rape, according to Justice Info's tally, out of a total 102 witnesses, some of whom did not turn up.

"During the first Rwandan genocide trial in Belgium, the Butare Four Trial in 2001, the word rape was not uttered once. The women who testified spoke of those they had lost, but not of what they themselves had experienced: rapes, children born of rape, AIDS. I blamed myself. I wasn't able to hear the silence of these women," said Hirsch with emotion.

"We now know that the rape of Tutsi women was an integral part of the genocide. Many - in fact most - of the survivors were raped. What we have heard before this court in this sixth Rwandan genocide trial in Belgium is a first. It is the first time in Belgium that mass rape has been prosecuted. Your decision will be important in this respect," she declared, turning to the jurors.

The next few days will be devoted to the defence.



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