By James Munyaneza
For all those who follow the proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), last week was quite eventful. It all began with the appeals chamber ruling to downgrade an earlier life sentence against Genocide mastermind, Col. Theoneste Bagosora to 35 years. Subtract the years he has been held by the tribunal, and the chief architect of one of the most heinous crimes in recorded history will now spend just 20 years in jail.
Equally, his co-accused, Lt. Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva, former military commander of Gisenyi prefecture, saw his life sentence reduced to 15 years. Having spent 15 years in custody, the ruling rendered Nsengiyumva a free man.
Although the appeals chamber ruled that Bagosora did not direct the killings during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, he was found him guilty of crimes against humanity. As the most senior military officer at the time, he was party to all plans to exterminate the Tutsi. That the Rwandan army, at the time, constituted the nucleus of Genocide machinery, through such extremist individuals as Bagosora, is a fact. In a sense, downgrading Bagosora’s sentence could downplay the otherwise insidious role of the regime that was in power at the time as confirmed by the then prime minister, Jean Kambanda, during a court appearance in the same tribunal.
However, in what might be seen as calculated timing, to help divert attention from the disappointment caused by the Bagosora’s verdict, another panel of judges, at the same tribunal, upheld an earlier verdict to transfer a suspect, Jean Uwinkindi, to Rwanda, to face Genocide charges, thus setting an all-important precedent that should guide other jurisdictions.
Uwinkindi, a former priest at Kanzenze Pentecostal church in Bugesera, allegedly committed atrocities against members of his own congregation and unleashed militiamen on Tutsis.
For many years now, various western courts had used ICTR’s reluctance to transfer suspects held in its detention facility to Rwanda, as a basis to turn down repeated extradition requests for Genocide perpetrators which, sometimes, resulted in the fugitives evading justice. Of course, for us who stay in this country and have witnessed the lenient sentences the majority of Genocide convicts have received, including doing community work while they are at home, coupled with far-reaching judicial reforms, such as the abolition of death sentence, it is difficult to understand why it has taken 17 years before the ICTR could effect any a transfer.
In fact the court has not only dispensed justice at an agonizingly slow pace, but has also hindered the administration of justice with regard to the hundreds of Genocide fugitives, thanks to its previous refusal to approve transfer requests. It’s my hope that, with the latest development, courts in the UK, Belgium, France, among other countries, will now process pending extradition requests.
Then, on Friday came news that the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) had refused to prefer charges against Callixte Mbarushimana, the secretary general of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel outfit whose political and military leadership is largely composed of fugitives wanted for Genocide crimes. Over the years, FDLR has operated under several names, including ALIR, which it abandoned after committing systematic atrocities across the region, including in Uganda’s Bwindi rainforest where it brutally executed eight western tourists – including four Britons, two Americans and two New Zealanders – in 1999.
FDLR is one of the groups that were blacklisted as terrorist outfits by the regional Tripartite Plus Commission, a four-state regional initiative, backed by the UN, US and other western partners.
Despite this, it is still involved in a spate of killings and other abuses against Congolese civilians, particularly in the country’s volatile eastern region, with impunity.
As such, when Mbarushimana, a man who has actively mobilized funding, in addition to being part of the political leadership for the terrorist group, was dispatched to the ICC, many thought that finally a leader of one of the most notorious criminal movements would have his day in court.
Congolese and peace-lovers will have known that letting Mbarushimana scot-free is a huge betrayal to the people who have suffered the most inhumane atrocities at his hands, and that it somewhat reinvigorates FDLR.
I will not be entirely surprised if the same happens with Ignace Murwanashyaka, the group’s ultimate leader, currently in a German detention.