Rwanda has warned that the achievements of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) are at stake following the tribunal’s recent decision to acquit two former Cabinet ministers of cases against them regarding their role in the 1994 genocide.
An uneasy relationship has existed between the Arusha-based United Nations-backed ICTR and Rwanda since 1994 when the tribunal was set up to try key masterminds of the genocide.
And in the latest collision, Kigali has threatened to dismiss ICTR monitors observing a transferred case “if the international tribunal continues to act with impunity.”
The diatribe was triggered by the decision by the ICTR appeals chamber to acquit Justin Mugenzi and Proper Mugiraneza and order their immediate release from custody.
A panel of judges led by Judge Theodor Meron quashed a 30-year prison sentence handed to both men by the trial chamber of the tribunal after they were found guilty of committing genocide and complicity to commit genocide.
Only Judge Liu Daqun upheld the previous decision, on grounds that the “political influence” of the two men could not be ruled out and that the duo failed to demonstrate to the appeals chamber that the trial chamber erred in arriving at its decision.
The majority of the judges however ruled that, despite being influential, the men did not know that the interim president during the genocide, Theodore Sindikubwabo, would make the inciting speech when they organised the ceremony in the southern Rwanda town of Butare, Huye.
The acquittal of Mr Mugenzi, who was minister for commerce, and Mr Mugiraneza, who was the public service minister in the transitional government which was in power when the genocide took place, was met with protests in Kigali.
Hundreds of genocide survivors staged a protest targeting the ICTR liaison offices in Kigali, where they expressed their dismay with the tribunal that is set to close shop at the end of 2014, for clearing the duo. They accused the pair of playing a role in the 100-day atrocities across the country from April 7, 1994.
Wielding placards denouncing the ICTR, the survivors held a peaceful march from Kimihurura to Remera, where they delivered a memorandum of their grievances to the tribunals’ offices. They also pinned banners on the walls of the heavily barricaded office building as multitudes of security guards watched.
“This acquittal is another nail in the coffin of the victims of the genocide, and a smack in the face for survivors of the genocide too,” an angry president of the genocide survivors association, Ibuka, Dr Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, said amid chants of approval from the protestors.
“The ICTR has delivered nothing for either the victims or the survivors of the genocide, delivering no compensation for the horrific atrocities committed during the genocide planned and perpetrated by the government, of which Mugenzi and Mugiraneza were indisputably members – even though the ICTR denies that they were actively involved,” he added.
This was the second protest over the acquittals staged at the tribunal’s offices since November 2009 following the release of Protais Zigiranyirazo, commonly known as “Mr Z”, and Catholic priest Hormisdas Nsengimana, who were considered top genocide suspects.
“We are all against these outrageous ICTR acquittals. Releasing genocide perpetrators is outright denial of the genocide,” Dr Dusinginzemungu told Rwanda Today.
“Releasing well-known genocidaires like Emmanuel Bagambiki, Andre Ntagerura, Ignace Bagirishema, General Gratien Kabirigi and others is a failure of justice and a clear signal of impunity.”
Genocide survivor Maria Bazigaga, 58, intimated to Rwanda Today that the acquittal of Mr Mugenzi was particularly insulting and a mockery of justice. She said: “I know Mugenzi. We were neighbours at Muhima in Nyarugenge District. He was a member of the Liberal Party at first but because the party did not want to take part in the genocide he switched to Power.”
‘Power’ referred to the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), infamously known as the ‘Hutu Power’ party, which orchestrated the genocide.
“When MDR took power in 1994, Mugenzi and his colleagues led the gangs of people that demonstrated in opposition to the Arusha peace talks and even started to kill Tutsis,” the ageing Ms Bazigaga, who lost more than a dozen close relations in the genocide, added.
“When the talks collapsed, Mugenzi and his colleagues led the killings. Mugenzi personally distributed weapons as the genocide erupted. He distributed machetes and clubs among the militias. His home in Muhima hosted planning meetings for the genocide. It is shocking that such a person could be acquitted.”
Prosecutor-General Martin Ngoga termed the acquittals “wrong” and “disappointing”.
“Rwanda is dismayed by these acquittals,” said Mr Ngoga. “It is wrong to acquit the two former cabinet ministers, just like all the other acquittals the tribunal has made. We are totally disappointed. If we have to go by this precedent, then all the Cabinet ministers and political leaders with pending appeals should be acquitted."
Leaving out the big fish
“We shall end up with a situation where the tribunal has only prosecuted the rank and file, leaving out the big fish. If we had a conviction of 20 to 30 years handed out by the trial chamber and then all of a sudden the appeals chamber overturns the sentence, something is certainly wrong.
“Either one of the chambers is extremely incompetent and the other extremely intelligent. It is unusual for the trial chamber and the appeals chamber to disagree completely. You cannot quash a sentence of 30 years completely. Either one of the judges does not know what they are doing. Normally, it should be a slight reduction in years, not total disagreement.”
The prosecutor-general warned that the tribunal risks dismantling its own legacy following several acquittals over the past two years.
“There will be nothing left to show of its achievements,” Mr Ngoga said.
On the recent acquittals, he added: “It is appalling. The two men served under the transitional government of interim Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who has pleaded guilty to the same tribunal on the same charges. The political role played by the two men is very clear, as reflected in the decision of the trial chamber.
“The people of this country are in serious disagreement. Many people believe that justice has not been done in that particular decision. We believe it is a wrong decision, it is a disappointing and worrying one because it is not the first time (such a ruling had been made).”
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Mr Ngoga said Rwanda believes the ICTR was similarly “wrong” to acquit former Prefet of Cyangugu, Mr Bagambiki in 2006 and Mr Zigiranyirazo in 2009. Rwanda also protested the acquittal of former health minister Casmir Bizimungu and former foreign affairs minister Jerome Clement Bicamumpaka.
So far, six suspects have been acquitted.
“We shall end up having all politicians acquitted. The trend is one of exonerating political leadership of any responsibility,” Ngoga said.
Mugenzi and Mugiraneza had been convicted for their role in the removal of the Tutsi mayor of the southern Rwanda town of Butare Jean-Baptiste Habyalimana, and there after arranging a ceremony where interim president Theodore Sindikubwabo gave a speech inciting the killing of the Tutsi.
The two men allegedly used their political power to mobilise Hutu civilians against the Tutsi. Butare had remained relatively peaceful after the April 6 downing of the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana that triggered the genocide.