A German court yesterday sentenced a former district mayor in Rwanda’s northeastern region to 14 years in jail over his involvement in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The High Regional Court of Frankfurt found Onesphore Rwabukombe, the former burgomaster of the former Muvumba commune, guilty of “aiding and abetting” the Genocide.
The case, the first trial of a suspect in the most brutal killings known to man to be conducted on German soil, opened three years ago.
Rwabukombe, 56, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit Genocide, will serve time in a German prison.
Prosecutors had asked for life sentence while defence sought an acquittal.
Close to 100 witnesses testified in the trial.
Rwabukombe was arrested on July 26, 2010 near Frankfurt in Germany.
Reading the verdict, presiding Judge Thomas Sagebiel said while Rwabukombe did not directly kill, he oversaw and assisted in the murder of hundreds of men, women and children at the Kiziguro church compound in the Eastern Province.
The Judge described scenes of slaughter committed with machetes and clubs, which Rwabukombe helped direct.
The bench found that the former mayor personally drove militiamen to the site of the massacre in his pick-up truck.
The lawyer representing the victims, Kanzlei Magsam, said he would appeal the decision.
“If the court recognised that he encouraged people to take part in the genocide, then that’s a direct participation which amounts to a life sentence and that would be the ground for our appeal,” Magsam told The New Times shortly after the trial.
“Considering that this was the first case to be tried in Germany and considering Rwabukombe’s age, 14 years is a fair sentence although we believe he should have been sentenced on all the crimes not just some of them.”
Rwabukombe was arrested in Germany in 2010. It was not immediately clear whether defence would appeal the ruling.
Culture of impunity
In Kigali, the Government welcomed the sentence.
“On behalf of the Government of Rwanda, the NPPA (National Public Prosecution Authority) would like to thank the Federal Republic of Germany for this effective contribution to Justice by fighting the culture of impunity and urge other countries to emulate this good example,” a statement signed by the prosecution spokesperson, Alain Mukuralinda, reads in part.
It said Rwandan and German authorities had worked closely in bringing Rwabukombe to book.
Prosecution had accused Rwabukombe of inciting the Interahamwe militia in Muvumba to kill Tutsis and actively participated in the killings in the nearby Murambi commune.
He was particularly cited in the deaths of more than 3,730 people at Kiziguro church on April 11, 1994.
Some 1,200 people who had sought refuge in the church are said to have been killed on Rwabukombe’s instructions.
After the killings at the church, survivors say Rwabukombe led a gang of militiamen to Kabarondo where he supervised more killings on April 13, 1994.
The vice president of Ibuka, an umbrella of Genocide survivors’ associations, Egide Nkuranga, welcomed the ruling, saying it sets precedence for similar cases in Europe.
“Of course it’s a lenient sentence and we hope the prosecutors will appeal the decision. But we are looking at this case in a more holistic way, we are looking at its implications on other cases involving Genocide fugitives who still live freely in western countries,” he said.
He added, “It’s about time European citizens knew the truth about the Genocide against the Tutsi after a sustained campaign of misinformation and distortion by the sympathisers of the perpetrators and Genocide deniers.”
Cyril Kalinganire, who saw his parents and siblings killed in the Kiziguro church massacre on April 11, said Rwabukombe moved from Muvumba to Murambi after the former fell to the then Rwanda Patriotic Army rebels – and, together with his Murambi counterpart, Jean Baptiste Gatete, hatched a plan to annihilate Tutsis in the area.
Gatete was in 2012 sentenced to 40 years in prison by an appeals bench at the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) after he had initially been jailed for life.
The Presiding Judge said Rwabukombe and Gatete directed local elements to commit the massacre at the Kiziguro parish. Most of the victims of the massacre had, in the run-up to the mass killing, sought refuge at the walled church premises. Other Tutsis were rounded up at the compound by the Interahamwe militia and soldiers.
The Judge drew on accounts of witness who heard Rwabukombe tell his henchmen upon entering the compound to “go help out” and “go do your work”.
He was also seen as watching over the disposal of the dead bodies in a nearby well shaft, part of which young Tutsi men were forced to help dig before also being killed.
Kalinganire, who was 11 in 1994, recalled: “In the early days of the Genocide, we sought refuge at Kiziguro church; I was with my sister, three brothers, and our parents. I remember that, on April 11, Rwabukombe was at the church, he watched as the militias attacked us, I saw him as I was fleeing from the church. My entire family was killed that day.”
Kalinganire is among those disappointed with the sentence. “It’s kind of soft considering the gravity of the crimes he committed.”
“He was a leader and one of the planners of the Genocide, 14 years is too lenient for people like us, it’s unfair but we are expected to respect court decisions,” said the survivor.
In Germany, Rwandans welcomed the fact that Germany had led by example (among European countries) in trying key planners of the Genocide against the Tutsi but also expressed disappointment with the verdict.
Philbert Gakuba, a Genocide survivor living in Germany who followed the case closely, said the trial should not pass unnoticed.
“It’s a first in this country and a good example to other countries in Europe that have failed to arrest and extradite to Rwanda, or arrest and try Genocide fugitives on their territories,” he told The New Times.
However I thought the ruling did not reflect the influential role the defendant played during the Genocide, Gakuba added.
“It was clear during the proceedings that he had command responsibility in the Genocide and his deeds merited maximum sentence,” said Gakuba who lost all his family in the Genocide.
But Gakuba pointed to difficulties associated with trying a case related to crimes committed 20 years ago and far from the crime scene, citing possibilities of evidence vanishing, getting tampered with or inaccessible by the jury. “These things influence the final decision.”
But Gilbert Ndahayo, a Genocide survivor living in the United States, does not believe western countries are genuinely committed to helping deliver justice for victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
“We know that these are show trials, whether in Germany or France. It’s ironic that Europeans recognise the Genocide against the Tutsi but fall short when it comes to condemning the perpetrators and genocide ideology. They did not want to get involved in the first place,” he said.
A French court is currently hearing a Rwanda Genocide case involving former spymaster Pascal Simbikangwa, the first such a case in France, a country that has for long been linked to the killings that claimed the lives a million plus people in a record 100 days.
Patrick Kroker, an Amnesty International expert in criminal law based in Germany, told journalists that regardless of the verdict, trying Rwabukombe sent out quite a strong signal to all the perpetrators of the Genocide against the Tutsi. “Every Genocide perpetrator must expect to be brought to justice.”
The trial of Onesphore Rwabukombe has highlighted the difficulties for the German judiciary, with complex issues,” he added.
-1994: Rwabukombe, a member of the local executive committee of the then ruling party MRND (Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Développement) and mayor of the Muvumba commune, is accused of inciting Hutus to kill Tutsis and actively participating in the the Genocide.
-2002: Seeks asylum in Germany.
-2007: Rwandan justice authorities transfer an international arrest warrant to Germany and he is put on the Interpol list.
-2008: Rwabukombe is arrested in Gelnhausen and Rwanda sends extradition request to Germany but the latter declines because there were doubts as to whether he would receive a fair trial in Rwanda. He is thus set free.
-2010: A new arrest warrant is issued and, on July 26, 2010, Rwabukombe is arrested near Frankfurt. The investigating judge orders the enforcement of pre-trial custody.
-February 18,2014: He’s sentenced to 14 years in jail.