Africa, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Rwandan Genocide Trial Opens in Belgium

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, May 10 2005 (IPS) - The trial of two brothers accused of war crimes during the Rwandan genocide began in Brussels Monday (May 9) under a new law.

Wealthy businessmen Etienne Nzabonimana (53) and Samuel Ndashyikirwa (43) are accused of helping extremist Hutu militia massacre some 50,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Kibungo south-west of capital Kigali during the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.

Both were businessmen who grew rich selling beer. They became prominent in their communities in Kibungo and Kirwa in south-eastern Rwanda.

Nzabonimana, a father of six, is accused of providing the killers with transport and storage space for their weapons. He then offered them beer after the killings, according to the charges. The second suspect Ndashyikirwa, father of five, is charged with giving killers practical help.

The trial is being held in Belgium because Nzabonimana was arrested in Brussels in 2002. Prosecution claims he was present during several attacks, and gave orders to the militias to kill.

Ndashyikirwa was also arrested in the Belgian capital in 2002. He was living under a false identity. He managed bars and taxis in Rwanda, and was well-respected in his village Kirwa, about a half-hour drive from Kibungo.

Ndashyikirwa is accused of joining preparations for massacres and of directly or indirectly taking part in killings.

The two half-brothers fiercely deny the charges. Nzabonimana says he was in hiding at home at the time, and criticises Rwanda’s new culture of denunciation. Ndashyikirwa says he tried to stop the killings.

Both face up to life imprisonment if they are convicted of human rights violations.

The genocide was sparked by the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport in April 1994. Most of the dead were Tutsis – and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.

This is the second Rwanda genocide trial to be held in the country after the law was changed to allow prosecutors to bring war crimes suspects to trial even if the defendants are not Belgian and the crimes were committed outside the country.

In 2001, a Belgian court convicted two Roman Catholic nuns, a former government minister and a university professor from Rwanda for their complicity in the atrocities.

That trial was hailed as a milestone in international law. Belgium held the groundbreaking trial under a 1993 law that gave local courts jurisdiction over violation of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, no matter where they occurred.

That trial led to a wave of lawsuits in Belgian courts. People filed grievances against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former U.S. president George Bush senior and other leaders.

Faced with a diplomatic crisis, the Belgian government was forced to amend the law so that those charged had to live in Belgium.

Belgium has a special link with Rwanda since the central African state was its former colonial possession. Ten Belgian paratroopers were among those killed in the early hours of the genocide.

The proceedings opened in Brussels with jury selection. The court is expected to hear 170 witnesses over the coming weeks. Many will be flown over from Rwanda. A verdict is expected Jun. 24.

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