There is shock in Rwanda. A judge at a UN court that has been trying genocide suspects – whose pattern of court decisions have also been contested by his colleagues, has ordered for the early release of two of the most high profile convicts. And there is fear that the man who emerged as the “brain” of the genocide Col Theoneste Bagosora could be next.
Elderly Judge Theodor Meron is the man who will go down in history as a single sympathetic voice of men and women who planned and executed the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. In the latest turn of events, Judge Meron has ordered early release of convicts Ferdinard Nahimana and Catholic priest Father Emmanuel Rukundo. Other candidates would not have caused the shock these two have provoked.
Judge Meron is the current President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. It is a replacement system for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which was closed down so that genocide cases are transferred to Rwanda. Suspects still at large are to be tried by the country where they will be arrested. Before, the current job, Judge Meron was an Appeals Chamber judge of ICTR.
On Wednesday this week, Judge Meron issued an order granting early release for Ferdinard Nahimana, founder of the incendiary hate radio RTLM. Nahimana is serving 30 years for genocide – convicted in November 2007. Coincidentally, Nahimana had been sentenced to life in prison, but Judge Meron at the time reduced the term in the 2007 Appeals verdict.
A panel of trial judges had found that RTLM broadcasts after 6 April 1994 constituted acts of persecution against the Tutsi population and held Nahimana liable for crimes of direct and public incitement to commit genocide and persecution as a crime against humanity for his failure to prevent and punish broadcasting of criminal speech by his subordinates at RTLM.
In the same release order, Judge Meron wants Father Rukundo free – a man trial judges described as the “devil in Kabgayi” – in reference to the seat of Rwanda Catholic Church. In October 2010, the Appeals court sentenced Rukundo to 23 years for genocide.
Father Rukundo was the ‘Military Chaplain’ for the army when the genocide was planned and executed. Court found him liable for genocide, murder and extermination in relation to abduction and murder of Tutsi who had sought refuge at Saint Joseph’s College and Saint Leon Minor Seminary, both situated in Gitarama prefecture, Central Rwanda.
In one particularly terrifying case, according to the verdict, Rukundo attempted to rape a Tutsi girl at the St. Leon Minor Seminary. However, instead of sheltering her, he told the Tutsi girl, that she and her entire family were to be killed for assisting the Inyenzi (coakroaches). The Tutsi girl, dubbed witness CHH, had testified before the court.
In the order to have Nahimana (66) and Fr. Rukundo (57) set free, Judge Meron says the two had “shown signs of rehabilitation”.
The litany of Judge Meron’s previous court decisions has provoked anger among genocide survivors, and his colleagues. Two years ago, a leaked confidential letter by a Danish judge Frederik Harhoff revealed that Meron had exerted “persistent and intense” pressure on his fellow judges to allow suspects go free at the Yugoslavia war crimes court.
Judge Meron acquitted Protais Zigiranyirazo in November 2009 and, then recently, ministers Justin Mugenzi and Prosper Mugiraneza, all senior officials of the Akazu inner circle. Zigiranyirazo known as “Mr. Z” during the heydays – was brother-in-law of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Judge Meron and other judges also reversed convictions and reduced considerably the sentences of Col. Theoneste Bagosora–the mastermind of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi–and Lt. Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva.
According to the national commission for the fight against genocide (CNLG), “justice is being held hostage” by the Polish judge. “It appears from several appeal decisions by Judge Meron that the legal reasoning thereof was insufficiently defensible and that such decisions aim at nothing less than neutralizing bold decisions rendered by Trial Chambers,” says CNLG in a protest note issued June last year amid other cases.
The Appeals Chamber in February 2014 acquitted General Augustin Ndindiliyimana and the former commander of the Reconnaissance Battalion , Major Francois -Xavier Nzuwonemeye while Captain Innocent Sagahutu, second-in-command of Reconnaissance Battalion , had his sentence reduced from 20 to 15 years.
CNLG said; “Strangely enough, the verdict on the principal defendant, General Augustin Bizimungu whose case was severed from that of other defendants, was deferred with no explanation. It should be remembered that the Trial Chamber had sentenced him to 30 years in prison for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
“Why was this deferral ordered while the case was heard in a joint trial known as “Military II?”
In another decision in May 2004, Judge Meron order acquittal of Dr. Ntakirutimana Gerard, a physician and medical director at Mugonero hospital of Kibuye prefecture where the French commandos were stationed. Dr. Ntakirutimana had been earlier on sentenced to 25 years in jail for his role in the 1994 genocide.
Genocide survivors’ umbrella organisation IBUKA has described Judge Meron’s decisions as “trivializing the genocide”.
IBUKA has vowed that it will stop at nothing to ensure the world knows Judge Meron is determined to “cleanse” genocide masterminds.
President Paul Kagame has branded as “very dubious” the decision to release the two convicts. Kagame was speaking Friday evening at a news conference following the two-day national dialogue “Umushyikirano” in Kigali.
“The court’s rules require that three conditions – including consulting Rwanda, are met before any convict is released,” said Kagame. “But none of them was the case.”
Kagame said the release of the convicts was similar to case of another decision by the UN not to transfer archives of the ICTR to Rwanda. They have been put in a new facility in Arusha-Tanzania, where the court was based.
Kagame said “some people and countries” which had role in the genocide are behind the decision. He announced that Rwanda’s UN envoy was dealing with the issue, and that government would not give up.