The only non-Rwandan to be convicted for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, will soon be on his way to a more “comfortable” jail in Europe, and possible release.
50-year old Georges Ruggiu, a Belgian national of Italian descent, was a journalist at the infamous Radio Television de Mille Collines (RTLM), an extremist radio station which incited the population to take part in the Genocide.
When the Genocide was finally put to an end in April 1994, Ruggiu, like his masters in RTLM, found himself on the run; first to the former Zaire and finally to Kenya. He went underground in Mombasa and converted to Islam under the new pseudonym of Omar.
His new-found identity, however, was not sufficient cover.
A white, pious and broke “muzungu” stood out like a sore thumb, and when international justice came knocking on his door, he tearfully resigned to fate.
He was one of a large group of people who were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and arrested in Kenya in July 1997 under what was dubbed the NAKI (Nairobi-Kigali) operation.
NAKI was a result of a diplomatic onslaught by Paul Kagame when he was still Vice President. Kenya had been a haven for hundreds of suspects and had thrown a protective cover over the fugitives.
It is not publicly known what transpired between Kagame and President Daniel Arap Moi, but no sooner had the Rwandan vice-president left Nairobi, than Kenya police launched a massive operation to round up everyone on the ICTR’s shopping list.
Only business tycoon Felicien Kabuga escaped the dragnet. His deep pockets and connections within the highest echelons of power had paid their dividends.
At first Georges Ruggiu denied any involvement in the Genocide despite overwhelming recorded evidence of his incendiary broadcasts, but three years in the coolers of the Arusha detention facilities were enough to break his will.
But Ruggiu had an ace up his sleeve. He was smart enough to enter a plea bargain with the Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, which many observers say was heavily tipped in favour of the Italio-Belgian.
The modern-day Goebbels knew how to prey on the western sensitivities that ruled the international tribunal. He gave a convincing performance that was punctuated with tears of remorse.
“In Rwanda, I lost everything, including my honour,” Ruggiu said in court.
Yes, he said, he was guilty as charged. His broadcasts were deliberately aimed at inciting the population hunt and kill Tutsis, but he was willing to strike a deal.
The main thrust of the agreement was that he would choose the country where he would serve out his sentence, the only Genocide convict to be accorded such a favour.
The prospect of languishing in the scorching heat of a prison in Mali where six other “local” convicted persons were about to be transferred did not appeal to him. He chose Italy.
On May 15, 2000, he pleaded guilty to two counts; direct and public incitement to commit genocide and Crimes against Humanity (Persecution). He was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In handing down what at that time was deemed a very lenient sentence, the tribunal based its decision on Ruggiu’s supposed act of contrition.
“The Belgian’s acknowledgement of his mistakes and crimes is a healthy application of reason and sentiment,” read the judgment in part.
What the tribunal failed or overlooked for some obscure reasons was that prior to Ruggiu’s coming on board RTLM, he had been involved in a circle of extremist Rwandans in Belgium.
He testified to the prosecution that he had been duped by his friends - a very lame excuse from this former social worker. What was obvious from his broadcasts was that he arrived in Rwanda with a baggage full of prejudice and only needed practical experience to hone his racist skills.
But the tribunal had other considerations.
“The accused’s guilty plea has spared the Tribunal a lengthy investigation and trial, thus economising time, effort and resources,” concluded the ICTR.
While the tribunal has contributed somewhat in bringing Genocide suspects to justice, its priorities have at times been confused, if not compromised. How does one equate “saving resources” and meting out due justice?
Even though the ICTR has in the past been considered as “a poor cousin” to the Yugoslav tribunal in terms of resources, money was never the problem; understanding the true scope of the Genocide was. That was where the ICTR failed and Ruggiu won.
Since Georges Ruggiu alias Omar has been in detention since 1997, he has slightly over a year to serve his full sentence, that is if he is not paroled by the Italian authorities since he has served three-quarters of his sentence.
It is difficult not to imagine that the “Muzungu Genocidaire” got the upper hand after all.