Rwandan Genocide: 20 Years Later, Is Rwanda Ready to Give Its People Fair Trials?

Early this month, five Rwandans were arrested in the UK on charges of crimes pertaining to the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which over 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered over the course of 100 days. The suspects, three of whom are former mayors of Rwandan towns, are accused of crimes against humanity, including murder, genocide, inciting and abetting genocide, and conspiracy to murder. All men deny the charges against them.

One of the men, Vincent Bajinya, aged 52, is accused of belonging to former President Juvenal Habyarimana’s inner circle of central planners and orchestrators of the genocide. Others are accused of organizing massacres in their towns and manning militia-controlled road blocks.

Four of the five men — Mr Bajinya; Celestin Ugirashebuja, 60; Charles Munyaneza, 55; and Emmanuel Nteziryayo, 60 — were previously arrested on similar charges in the UK in 2009. Due to concerns that they would not receive a free and fair trial, the UK High Court denied an extradition bid from Rwanda, and the charges were temporarily dropped. The men have been living freely in the UK until this month’s arrest. The fifth suspect, Celestin Mutabaruka, had not been previously arrested. 

UK prosecutor Gemma Lindfield believes that Rwanda’s extradition bid will be granted this year, due to the progress the Rwandan judicial system has made over the past few years. She notes recent extraditions of genocide suspects by other European countries, as well as changes in the Rwandan court system including an improved witness-protection program and the abolition of capital punishment. In March, an extradition memorandum between Rwanda and the UK listed conditions for any extradited suspects.

Due to the seriousness of the charges, bail for the suspects has been denied. The extradition trial will take place in October of this year. During the trial, UK judges will decide if Rwanda has built an adequate case against the five suspects.

An extradition grant from the UK would be a big vote of confidence for the Rwandan judicial system, which has been the subject of controversy for human rights groups. The defense lawyer for Mr. Bajinya, Frank Brazell, points to Rwanda’s recent poor human rights record, specifically abuses noted in a recent U.S. report, including the suppression of political opposition and support of rebel groups operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other concerns, brought up in 2009, revolve around the condition of Rwandan prisons (most of which are still over-crowded), the bias of the judiciary, and the availability of defense witnesses.

“Genocide ideology,” a crime in punishable with 10-20 years imprisonment, is not adequately defined in Rwandan law, leading to broad interpretations by the courts.

The large numbers of possible accomplices in the 1994 genocide has made distribution of justice extremely difficult. While the most high-profile cases have been handled by the slow-moving International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, a special UN court based in Arusha, Tanzania, the vast majority of cases — around two million — have been handled in Rwanda. Local, traditional, community-based courts called “gacaca” have delivered most of the sentences.

It’s hard to achieve justice in a country where it is suspected that around 200,000 people perpetrated genocide, and where the family and friends of 800,000 more seek retribution.  But the move towards extradition by European countries shows that Rwanda is — hopefully — ready to put on a fair trial.