Rwanda judiciary in acid test as Mutabazi trial is postponed

Saturday February 15 2014

Lt Joel Mutabazi (left) being escorted to Kanombe Military High Court. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya

The trial of President Paul Kagame’s former bodyguard Lt Joel Mutabazi is proving to be a thorn in the flesh of the Rwandan judiciary after he and his co-accused revoked their earlier guilty pleas and refused to answer charges.

This week the military court was forced to push the trial to May this year to allow further consultations between the accused and their legal representatives.

Lt Mutabazi, who is charged with plotting grenade attacks in the capital Kigali, and was extradited from Uganda last October, appeared in court on Wednesday and Thursday this week, affirming his earlier position that he will not co-operate in the trial because he is not assured of the impartiality of the military court.

READ: Kagame's ex-bodyguard recants guilty plea, refuses to participate in trial

Appearing before the Kanombe Military High Court, Lt Mutabazi told the judges that he is “ready to die” but would not be part of “a fraudulent judicial process” in which he would most likely not be accorded justice.

The case took another twist when one of Lt Mutabazi’s co-accused, Joseph Nshimiyimana, also withdrew his earlier guilty plea, in which he admitted that he and Lt Mutabazi were involved in activities aimed at threatening state security during their stay as refugees in the Ugandan capital Kampala.


The military prosecution contends that Mr Nshimiyimana, who was allegedly the co-ordinator of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in Kampala, worked in tandem with Lt Mutabazi and that both were in direct contact with members of the Rwanda National Congress, with whom they planned attacks on Rwanda.

“I cannot answer the charges before this court because in the first place I was brought here illegally. Legally, I am still a resident of Uganda. I challenge the process in which I was brought here and ended up before this court,” Mr Nshimiyimana said.

He said that he was wrongfully extradited and that his pre-trial rights were violated as he never appeared before a primary court to file for bail.

While Lt Mutabazi’s extradition from Uganda was well publicised, it is not clear how Mr Nshimiyimana, who had offered to co-operate in the trial to get a lesser punishment, ended up in the hands of Rwanda law enforcements organs.

Global attention

Lt Mutabazi’s case has attracted global attention, with rights groups and embassies taking an active interest in it. The circumstances under which he was extradited remain shrouded in controversy.

READ: Mutabazi saga reignites Rwanda govt, rights groups feud

Rwanda maintains he was wanted for plotting grenade attacks in the capital Kigali as well as deserting the army.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carina Tertsakian said that the New York-based rights watchdog is following the trial closely and observing the court hearings.

“It is a complex case, and there are several aspects of concern: To start with, the forcible return of Mutabazi and others from Uganda, without following proper extradition procedures, but also the fact that they were held for some time in Rwanda without the authorities divulging where they were.

“There are now additional concerns arising from the trial itself. On the question of the forcible return/extradition, we have followed up with the Ugandan authorities to express our concern and ask how this could have happened,” Ms Tertsakian told The EastAfrican.

During the Wednesday appearance, Lt Mutabazi asked the judge to ask himself whether it would not be him appearing in a similar trial in future.

The judge responded by warning both Lt Mutabazi and Mr Nshimiyimana against disrespecting and undermining a courthouse mandated by the Constitution. Lt Mutabazi retorted that he was ready for what might befall him, including death, but he would not be part of the trial.

The postponement of the case caused a sensation in the courtroom, with the 14 other co-accused, who were willing to co-operate in the trial expressing consternation over the long period the case would take.

Lt Mutabazi’s uncle Eugene Mutamba, who was co-operating with the court, was one of those affected.

During the hearing, the Military High Court played a video of Lt Mutabazi “voluntarily” confessing to some of the seven charges he is facing.

Lt Mutabazi testified in camera and in the absence of his lawyer.

The former presidential guard claimed that he testified under duress.

In the video, Lt Mutabazi admits some of the charges including possessing a firearm and ammunition, plotting to harm the person of the president and spreading rumours about the government.

Last month, however, Mutabazi retracted his earlier confessions and vowed not to say anything about the charges. His lawyer, Antoinette Mukamusoni, withdrew from the case citing “self-contradiction” by her client.

On Wednesday, Mr Nshimiyimana’s lawyer, Hubert Rubasha, too expressed concern over his client’s change of position, informing the court that he might not be in position to defend Mr Nshimiyimana before holding extensive consultations with him.

However, Nshimiyimana said he would not need a legal representative since he was not willing to participate in the hearing.