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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/RIGHTS-RWANDA: Key Genocide Trials Depend On Judicial Reforms

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, Oct 4 2008 (IPS) - Rwanda is hoping to convince the International Criminal Tribunal to change its mind over refusing to transfer three genocide suspects to face trial at home, paving the way for extradition procedures to start against dozens of others living abroad in freedom.

In rulings in May and June, the Tanzania-based ICTR blocked applications to hand over the three suspects on the grounds that they might not receive fair trials in Rwanda.

The three are alleged to have committed crimes against humanity in the 1994 genocide where 800,000 people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred.

In three separate but largely similar rulings, ICTR judges raised doubts about the independence of the Rwandan judiciary. Guarantees against outside government pressure on the courts were missing.

Judges also expressed concern that defence witnesses could face intimidation. The Rwandan witness protection programme was not robust enough to guarantee them protection.

Some judges were unwilling to hand over the accused because they might face inhumane prison conditions, including isolation and solitary confinement, if convicted.

The ICTR rulings were issued as its U.N. mandate for prosecuting the principle people allegedly responsible for the 1994 genocide draws to a close. All trials should be completed by the end of 2008, a goal which is unlikely to be met.

So far, ICTR judges have sentenced 30 people and acquitted five. Eight suspects are still awaiting trial.

The decisions to refuse to hand over the three are a blow to Rwanda's aim of securing the extradition of others who fled the country at the end of the genocide. In any extradition proceedings, suspects could cite the ICTR view that fair trial conditions do not yet exist in Rwanda, despite massive help from the international community.

In 2007, Rwanda rushed though a bill to abolish the death penalty, removing a major barrier to extradition posted by the ICTR and many abolitionist countries where the accused had fled.

Rwanda had a list of 97 people it wanted to extradite for allegedly masterminding or participating in the genocide, Tharcisse Karugarama, minister of justice, told IPS.

"Most of those wanted are still free … in many European countries and in North America."

Their return to face justice in Rwanda was essential for national reconciliation, Theodore Simburudali, president of Ibuka, one of the main genocide survivors' organisations, told IPS.

Rwanda has been allowed to submit written appeals against the blocking of the transfer of the three. Its lawyers will also be allowed to back-up their arguments by appearing before ICTR judges.

The ICTR recognised the progress that had made in reforming Rwanda's judiciary system, but "some more requirements" were necessary, Hassan Bubacar Jallow, the chief ICTR prosecutor, told IPS.

His comment suggests that ICTR judges could reverse their decisions if Rwanda could show it was introducing more judicial and penal reforms.

In reaching their decisions, ICTR judges listened to the views of four NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. HRW questioned the independence of the Rwandan judiciary.

ICTR judges ruling in the case of Yusuf Manyakazi, a former businessman and farmer, suggested that this concern could be met by having a panel of trial judges. Three or more judges were less likely to bend to pressure from outside than a single judge.

But Martin Ngoga, a senior Rwandan prosecutor, rejected any need for changes to the present trial system. "Rwanda has already put in place all the necessary mechanisms to guarantee the international legal rights of the accused to a fair trail," he told IPS. "Many of those who committed genocide have already been convicted in Rwanda and all trials have been carried out with fairness and impartiality."

NGOs also gave evidence to the ICTR about the poor prison conditions in Rwanda. Death row was abolished when life imprisonment replaced capital punishment in 2007, but inmates now serving life terms were said to be held in inhumane conditions, including solitary confinement. But Karugarama denied this. "Rwanda has already responded to these allegations", he said. Carina Tertsakian, a human rights activist and researcher, in her book, Le Château: the lives of prisoners in Rwanda, tells the story of life in Rwanda’s prisons in the ten years which followed the 1994 genocide. "Forty centimetres is the standard width of a prisoner's individual space, where he sleeps, where he eats, where he sits, where he lives," she writes.

"Every aspect of prison life in Rwanda is defined by overcrowding."

Despite this, in March Rwanda qualified as the seventh country to receive prisoners sentenced by the ICTR to serve out their sentences. Adama Dieng, assistant secretary-general of the U.N., said at the time that he expected that Rwanda would take the necessary steps to implement this agreement. His comments suggest that Rwanda will be given time and help to improve its prison conditions before the actual transfer of convicted prisoners takes place.

(*The story moved Sep. 23, 2008 erroneously identified Carina Tertsakian as a researcher for Penal Reform International. Ms Tertsakian independently researched and produced her book on Rwanda’s prisons which is published by Arves Books, London)

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