International justice on the spot as ICTR's longest trial enters appeal

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), yesterday, started hearing its last appeal case, which involves former minister for family affairs and women development Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. Nyiramasuhuko, who was sentenced on first instance to life in prison, was the first woman to be tried and convicted by an international war crimes court.
Survivors of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi are overcome by grief as they read names of the relatives killed in the Genocide at Rebero Genocide Memorial Centre in Kicukiro District on Monday. (John Mbanda)
Survivors of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi are overcome by grief as they read names of the relatives killed in the Genocide at Rebero Genocide Memorial Centre in Kicukiro District on Monday. (John Mbanda)

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), yesterday, started hearing its last appeal case, which involves former minister for family affairs and women development Pauline Nyiramasuhuko.

Nyiramasuhuko, who was sentenced on first instance to life in prison, was the first woman to be tried and convicted by an international war crimes court.

Nyiramasuhuko’s case, which is code-named ‘Butare Trial,’ involves six accused all hailing from the former Butare prefecture, the current Huye District, and other parts of the Southern Province. 

The case, in which the former minister is co-accused with her son Arsene Sharlom Ntahobari, has dragged on for the past 14 years, becoming the longest and probably the most expensive trial the tribunal has handled.

According to the calendar of the ICTR Appeals Chamber, the prosecution and defence will take the stand in court until April 24 when Nyiramasuhuko and her co-defendants may, if they choose, address their appeals judges in person, before the judges retire to deliberate.

The appeal case starts at the time Rwandans are commemorating the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, in which the accused is said to have played a tragic part.

Survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi say that the delay in the ‘Butare Trial’ puts the international justice in doubt, while others said it could be even deliberate.

Nyiramasuhuko is not just the only woman indicted by the ICTR but also by an international criminal court, and the allegations against her include commandeering rape.

“Her role in the Genocide is very clear; she coordinated planning meetings to kill Tutsi. Whenever the militia met resistance, she was the person who could bring military reinforcement,” said Laurent Gatera, a survivor who says he witnessed firsthand the deeds of Nyiramasuhuko and her gang.

Other accused besides Nyiramasuhuko and her son are former prefects Sylvain Nsabimana and Alphonse Nteziryayo, as well as Joseph Kanyabashi and Elie Ndayambaje, former mayors of Ngoma and Muganza communes, respectively.

The Trial Chamber sentenced her to life in prison on June 24, 2011, for conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, extermination, rape, persecution, violence to life, other inhumane acts and outrages to human dignity.

According to the judges, the former minister “conspired with other members of the interim government to commit genocide in Butare (southern Rwanda)”.

They said she exercised command authority over Interahamwe militia who committed rape in the offices of the Butare prefect.

“For a woman to have coordinated in the killings to the level she did shows you how deep she was in the organization of the Genocide at the national level, said Rose Mukamusana, a representative of Avega Agahozo in the Southern Province.

Nyiramasuhuko was named minister in the genocidal regime that was formed after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, and which was composed of extremist politicians, all with a common goal of exterminating the Tutsi.

This was confirmed by the Prime Minister of the then government, Jean Kambanda, who told the same court of a deliberate plan by members of his cabinet to exterminate Tutsi.

Deliberate delay

Mukamusana went on to make a connection between Nyiramasuhuko’s acts and Genocide denial saying that delays imply support to the former minister.

“This kind of delay implicates the tribunal in some way. Nyiramasuhuko took part in the Genocide and it is without doubt; the people she led have been charged and sentenced, yet she is enjoying the privileges of an international court. If we are talking about justice, let someone not be treated different because they are outside Rwanda,” said Mukamusana.

Among her co-conspirators whose cases have been adjudicated by other jurisdictions include Desire Munyaneza, who was sentenced by Canadian courts to life in prison and whose appeal has since been rejected by the Canadian Supreme Court.

“Allowing Nyiramasuhuko and her co-defendants to spend all this time on trial is supporting Genocide perpetrators and does not offer any warning to any leader who may plan to commit the same crime in the future,” she said.

All the accused in the Nyiramasuhuko et. al. case were found guilty and handed varying sentences.

Besides Nyiramasuhuko, her son Ntahobari and Ndajambaje were also handed life sentences while Kanyabashi was sentenced to 35 years.

The two prefects; Nsabimana and Nteziryayo, got 25 and 30 years, respectively.

The ICTR, which is based in the northern Tanzanian town Arusha , is expected to completely close shop by the end of August, and any remaining tasks will be taken over by the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

About ICTR

The ICTR was set up in 1994 by a UN Security Council Resolution with a mandate to track and bring to justice those suspected of being key architects of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi between January 1 and December 31, 1994.

Since its first trial started in 1997, the ICTR has convicted 60 and acquitted 14 others accused of having played a leading role in the Genocide.

 One witness and one investigator have also been tried and sentenced for contempt of court. Prominent of those convicted include former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda and other members of his government, army generals, businessmen, clergy and members of the media.

Some of the convicts are serving their sentence in Mali and Benin while others are still in the ICTR holding facility.

Nine top ICTR suspects are still on the run, including rich businessman Félicien Kabuga, who bankrolled the Genocide, former defence minister Augustin Bizimana, and Protais Mpiranya, who allegedly headed the presidential guard of ex-president Juvénal Habyarimana.

The three “big fish” will be tried by Mechanism for International Criminal Courts, if they are arrested.

For the other six ICTR fugitives, their case files have been handed over to Rwanda, as part of the ICTR’s closure strategy.

The tribunal has spent close to US$2 billion in handling the trials.

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