Following the arrest on terrorism charges of Paul Rusesabagina upon arrival in Kigali – on a plane he thought was going to Bujumbura – Rwanda’s judicial system has come under laser-like scrutiny.
Detractors of the Rwandan state predictably have jumped on the bandwagon of attempts to discredit the legal process, which they did even before Rusesabagina stepped in a courtroom for his initial hearing.
Much of the international uproar that followed after the Rwanda Investigation Bureau paraded him before the media late last August was because of the suspect’s celebrity as the object of the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda. Since the film, Rusesabagina has skillfully exploited the huge publicity from it to create a persona as “a humanitarian”, or an “opposition and democracy activist” (though many that knew what transpired at the Mille Collines have long revealed the man’s image as depicted in the movie is a complete fabrication).
“Rusesabagina saved no one; on the contrary he extorted money to let people enter, and threatened to throw out those that failed to pay,” says one of the survivors – author Edouard Kayihura. That did not in the least deter Rusesabagina from manipulating this Hollywood-created persona to turn himself into something he never was (“a humanitarian hero”). After that he developed an appetite for power – disguised under that persona of “opposition or democracy activist”.
But the man chose violence in the form of terrorism as the means to achieve his ends. There is plenty of evidence to pin Rusesabagina on terror attacks in the Districts of Nyabihu and Nyabimata that cost up to five Rwandans their lives, and left others injured in 2018. There is plenty of evidence that violence was at the direction of Rusesabagina’s MRCD, a so-called political party whose armed wing, FLN, perpetrated those attacks. There is video evidence of Rusesabagina declaring war on the Government.
Yet groups and individuals – friends and family of Rusesabagina as well as international pressure groups in Europe and America – choose to obfuscate the incriminating facts and instead cast doubt on the Rwandan administration and its institutions. The result is as if it is the Rwandan judiciary that is on trial. The critics’ prejudiced position is that Rusesabagina cannot receive a fair trial because the Rwandan judicial system ‘is not independent’”.
The likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International lead this charge, their position the same as always: that the Rwandan judiciary “simply is a tool of President Kagame.”
Nothing can be further from the truth, says jurist Phil Clark, Professor of International Politics at SOAS University of London who is an expert on the Great Lakes Region. Prof. Clark says the Rwandan judiciary in fact is the opposite of what the detractors claim it to be. “It is simply a misconception that the Rwandan judiciary is a lapdog of Kagame,” he said. “We’ve actually seen a very independent judiciary begin to rise up in Rwanda, often handing down judgments contrary to the wishes of the national executive.
Rusesabagina’s family and friends have put up a loud chorus, with the predetermined position that he is innocent, thus doing that which they accuse Rwanda of, i.e. passing judgment on a case in a way that’s completely unfair (to the victims of FLN terrorist attacks), as a strategy to put pressure on Rwanda to let the suspect go. This is the logical conclusion arising from the insistence that their hero cannot possibly receive fair justice in Kigali.
But the record of the Rwandan judiciary firmly rebuffs them. One may begin with the case of Diane Rwigara and her mother Adeline Mukangemanyi who had been detained on charges of inciting insurrection among the population, discrimination, and sectarian practices. Diane faced separate, forgery related charges.
When the duo’s trial was underway, HRW, Amnesty, and every other foreign pressure group said it was “impossible for the women to receive a fair trial.” To them it was a foregone conclusion that the trial would be “sham” and only lead to conviction. Things did not turn out like that.
In December 2018 the High Court in Kigali acquitted Diane and Adeline, and four suspected accomplices in absentia, of all charges. Reading its decision, the court cited lack of sufficient evidence, as tabled by Prosecution, to convict. It found that Prosecution’s evidence fell short of the beyond-reasonable-doubt threshold, and the women were acquitted.
This is not the only instance whereby the Rwandan judiciary has demonstrated its independence, or ability to rule against state prosecution.
The Specialized Chamber for International Crimes in Nyanza cleared genocide suspect Leopold Munyakazi of all but one genocide-related charge – revisionism – and sentenced him to a nine-year prison sentence. The court cleared Munyakazi of the far graver crimes of genocide, complicity to commit genocide, incitement to commit genocide, and murder.
Munyakazi was a man that the Rwandan state had fought tooth and nail to have extradited from the US. Witnesses in Rwanda were eager to testify to the crimes the man was accused of. After the US acted on Rwanda’s extradition request and sent him to Kigali in 2016 there ensued a court case that lasted two years. State Prosecution requested a life sentence. But in July 2018 the court in Nyanza ruled against it, and handed down the nine-year sentence. The decision was premised on the fact there were certain contradictions in witness accounts, creating doubt, and favoring acquittal.
“Another thing the negativists do not realize is that the independence of our judiciary is getting recognized every passing year, even internationally,” said an official of the Justice Ministry who preferred to speak off the record.
“The fact that more countries, such as the US, are willing to extradite suspects is testimony of their confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our system,” he added.
Countries like Canada, the US, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway, DR Congo and others have extradited suspects to be tried in Rwanda.