Rwandan genocide trials in Western courts: what is really happening?

Aug 10th, 2013 at 20:50 | By | Category: Justice, News analysis

Since the exodus of Rwandans to European countries that started from the early 1990’s, over 20 Rwandans have been investigated in Belgium, about 15 are awaiting trial in The Netherlands, five were arrested in Britain last month and one Rwandan woman was convicted in the United States two weeks ago. According to the General Prosecutor of Rwanda, the main instigator of the trials, many more Rwandans in exile are likely to follow their compatriots’ footsteps in a European court of law.

 As a matter of fact, the numbers mentioned here are merely a small reflection of yet another group of Rwandans who, after finding refuge in a European country, found themselves accused of the most serious crimes over their alleged participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Many other genocide cases have been treated in and are still being presented to European courts at the time of this article. The trials generally face the same judicial challenges such as language, Rwandan politics and a lack of a historical understanding of the facts that could impede a fair trial for the accused. At the same time, however, the current Rwandan government puts forward a policy of accountability which demands European courts to accelerate the prosecution of Rwandans in exile, takes it upon itself to supply evidence, witnesses and in certain cases demands extradition (See Léon Mugesera vs Canada, Ahorugeze vs Sweden). In such unfavourable conditions, how do European courts protect the rights of the accused?

In the last decade, prosecutors in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, France, The Netherlands and Belgium have been working overtime in order to have the so-called “genocidaires” in exile, who in many cases have already acquired the host country’s nationality, prosecuted. In Finland for instance, the case of Bazaramba was the most expensive in the entire History of Finish criminal justice. These cases usually share a similar outcome: the prosecutors win. However, the procedures behind the case building are hampered with practical and political problems. In addition to the language, cultural barriers, distance and a time gap of many years, there are also difficulties with finding reliable evidence as a majority of the information regarding the accusations is being gathered from witnesses testimonies. It should be noted that most official documents were either lost during the war, destroyed or manipulated by the current Rwandan regime, a party that is not impartial in this matter itself. Moreover, judges and lawyers often have not talked to prosecution witnesses themselves nor have they visited the alleged crime scenes. As for defence witnesses, most of them are dispersed all over the world where they found refuge.

Gathering evidence from the accuser

One of the issue at heart of these cases is the fact that charges and evidence are transmitted to European judicial systems by the Rwandan government, a government whose officials have been accused of committing genocide crimes themselves. The United Nations’ “Mapping Report” speaks of the atrocities committed by members of the current ruling party of Rwanda, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in the post-era of the genocide.

What is also striking about these cases is that charges of genocide seem to be worth prosecutions while crimes against humanity or war crimes are nowhere to be found, especially in western media. In other words, it is as if the victims of genocide deserve justice but not the victims of crimes against humanity or war crimes. It is important to understand that these three crimes are all serious international crimes and should be prevented and punished.

The RPF argues that its main goal is to bring all those who were responsible for the genocide to justice. However, when looking at the alleged genocide perpetrators in Europe, it is remarkable that the great majority of the defendants are Rwandans who oppose the governing ways of the RPF. Considering that the RPF gained power in a time of political chaos and President Paul Kagame has been ruling the country with an iron fist since then, how do European courts manage to distinct themselves from this regime’s motives that aim at narrowing the political space inside Rwanda?

Indeed, the government in Kigali is not reluctant to put a finger where it hurts when it comes to these cases. Rwandan officials have often rebuked France as a “a supporter of genocidaires” following France’s refusal to extradite alleged criminal Rwandans. President Kagame himself has repeatedly called upon the international community to ‘cooperate’ in delivering justice.

In an era where the small country has been considered to be the ‘donor darling’ of richer Western nations, it is not unlikely that international charges brought forth by Rwanda’s Ministry of Justice are examined with a certain ambiguity that could impede the fairness of genocide cases abroad.

Interviewing witnesses

At the same time, the heavy dependence on witnesses’ accounts by prosecutors due to lack of material evidence, is a feature that has been at the center of debates in the past few years. In the specific case of 66-year old Yvonne Basebya, a Rwandan woman who had acquired the Dutch nationality and had been living in The Netherlands for 12 years, Dutch judges only interviewed one out of 77 witnesses during the trial. Despite the defence lawyer’s request to interrogate multiple witnesses in court, only witness E.M. was heard by both the judge and the examining magistrate.

Astonishingly, in her testimony in the hearing in The Hague, witness E.M. made several factual errors that led the judge to declare her testimony unreliable. [1]

Also, claims about witnesses being “prepared” and “trained” before they make their appearance in courts have been frequently voiced. The most recent example is found in a broadcast of the Flemish channel Canvas in which a witness testifies on being instructed by the Rwandan Public Prosecutor to lie in front of a European judge[2].

In the Finnish case of Francois Bazaramba[3] that started in 2007 only to end in 2012 with a life sentence from the Fininish Supreme Court, his lawyer Ville Hoikkala said the evidence against his client was “obtained through torture”. Even in Rwanda, witnesses in the case of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire renounced the prosecution in an appeal hearing. One witness, Lieutenant-Colonel Nditurende, admitted to have been harassed by the Minister of Justice to reveal the password of his e-mail account and implied his messages were amended after this incident.[4]

Interviews of witnesses usually compromise one of the cornerstones behind building a case. More often than not, these witnesses only testify to the examining judge and do not appear in court. If European judges do not make the effort to gain the full information behind their Rwandan genocide cases, who knows what kind of insights their trials are missing? How does an international court ensure that the current government of Rwanda is not abusing its judicial rights in order for the country to maintain its political supremacy?

Involving Gacaca files 

Furthermore, European prosecutors often build their plea based on handwritten Kinyarwanda documents from Gacaca hearings that could date as far as 19 years back. Not only  the content of these documents alter throughout translations, but it is also difficult for Rwandans living in Rwanda or abroad to grasp how the collected data is used as well as its impact on the cases. This is so because these documents end in different judicial traditions, different languages and at different times in the countries where the trials take place.

Assessing the Gacaca courts’, up until now, leads to mixed results. The idea of community members settling their own genocide trials among themselves received massive international support in the post-genocide era. However, as more and more Gacaca hearings took place, the inexperience of the locals and the personal involvement of the judges began to take its toll. Human Rights Watch, in its 2011 report ‘’Justice Compromised: The Legacy of Rwanda’s Community-Based Gacaca Courts’’, described the “miscarriages of justice” in many trials such as the lack of neutrality, corruption and procedural irregularities.

Judging what one does not know 

So what is happening in these European courtrooms? How can a European court issue judgment in a genocide case dating from 1994, solely based on witness’ testimonies that were presented by the accuser? Despite these pitfalls, European courts seem to have no problems convicting one Rwandan after another in an environment of more uncertainties than guarantees. Meanwhile, the accused and their social circles stand puzzled at what is happening.

To most Rwandans, these processes make little sense. They take place in different legal cultures, far away and in different languages. To follow and understand these cases even for the most learned is very difficult. The documents of these courts are subject to each national jurisdiction and are not available to the public in the same way as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Means to fully investigate what the foreign law enforcement institutions are doing are marginal, leaving the public in genocide hearings with more questions than answers.


Jane Nishimwe





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One Comment to “Rwandan genocide trials in Western courts: what is really happening?”

  1. In such cases these things are still fresh in minds of people ,those who testify for the sake of reconciliation , investigation techniques are superb, witness are interviewed without duress, cross examined, probed then a statement is made as a final product
    This article is one sided and the author shows sides and she is biased indeed in writing such article you should do a real research not on the internet on selective websites Jane you should go in prisons as a source , see neighbours, survivors, friends and sympathizers then out weigh what you have obtained to produce a good article


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