Thursday, April 19, 2012

High-stakes drama plays out in Rwandan courts

 By RNW Africa Desk 
Radio Netherland Worldwide

Published on : 19 April 2012
As Rwanda prepares to receive its first suspect from the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR) today, a gripping drama plays out in the country’s domestic courts. New twists in the trial of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire may determine whether Rwanda is permitted to try its most-wanted genocide suspects at home. Ingabire dramatically withdrew from her trial this week. That move and the events leading up to it raise fresh questions about how fair Rwanda’s judicial system is.
Steve Terrill, Kigali
After saying on Monday she would boycott her trial, Ingabire reappeared in court Wednesday. She said it was her last visit to the court, having only come to hear the ruling on how the trial would proceed in her absence. No defence attorneys were present in the courtroom. Ingabire’s supporters also boycotted the proceedings.
Presiding Judge Alice Rulisa said the trial should continue. The judge ruled against prosecutors’ requests that the defendant be forced to appear and that a ‘special’ lawyer be appointed to stand-in for Ingabire and her team.
Prosecutors since said they believe Ingabire “planned a withdrawal all along” and “her defence was completed”. But defence lawyers say they were not finished, having more witnesses to call and evidence to submit. The court had suspended argument over a charge of “genocide ideology” while the Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of the controversial 2008 law behind it.

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The lone witness

The judicial theatre began with testimony from the lone witness who spoke in Ingabire’s defence to refute much of the prosecution case against her. Former FDLR spokesman Michel Habimana, currently serving a life sentence in Kigali for genocide-related crimes, told the court that Ingabire’s co-defendant and key prosecution witness Vital Uwumuremye was a fraud who had worked with Rwandan intelligence officials to fabricate a case against Ingabire. Habimana said he was also approached to give false testimony, but he refused.

The evening after Habimana first spoke to the court and before he could return to finish his testimony, Rwandan prison officials had searched Habimana’s prison cell for evidence showing he was improperly coached. After finding notes he had written to prepare for his testimony, officials questioned Habimana at the prison, behind closed doors, without an attorney present and without first notifying the court.
Defence lawyer Gatera Gashabana endeavoured to ask Habimana about his being questioned at the prison and his claims of other irregularities, but the court would not allow it.
“We don’t see how this advances your client’s case,” Judge Rulisa shouted to Gashabana, while slamming down her gavel. She then ordered Habimana out of court and back to prison.
It was at that point Ingabire stood up. She said she could “no longer carry on with this case.”
Uwinkindi back to Rwanda

Influenced by the past week's events, the drama took another turn on Tuesday in The Hague. Lawyers of genocide suspect Jean-Bosco Uwinkindi, a former church pastor being held at the ICTR under accusations of hunting down Tutsis, filed a motion to block the transfer of their client back to Rwanda.

On Thursday, the ICTR denied the motion. This implies Uwinkindi’s transfer is imminent.
Ingabire defence conspiracy?

Prosecutors have since floated the notion among local reporters that the drama carried out by Ingabire was a conspiracy hatched by her British lawyer, Iain Edwards, who also used to represent Uwinkindi to the ICTR.

“Ingabire creates an incident here and, within hours, a lawyer files a motion in Arusha based on the incident in Rwanda,” Rwanda’s Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga told reporters at a rare press conference called to address recent events. “We are suspicious of the timing. We are suspicious of the motive.”
But Edwards dismissed the assertion he is part of a conspiracy. He called it “ridiculous, impossible and desperate.”
“I had no control over the prosecutors and I had no way of getting them to conduct a parallel interrogation of a witness outside of court,” Edwards told RNW. “The basis of the motion filed in Arusha is the conduct of prosecutors and prison officials, not my client’s withdrawal from her trial.”
Another defence lawyer, who has worked at the ICTR but asked not to be named, citing concerns of being blocked from his work in Rwanda, said the recent events have ratified his worst fears.
“The prosecution and court are confirming the worries of those that oppose transfers on the grounds that the judiciary has no objectivity or independence when it comes to perceived opponents or alleged genocidaires,” he told RNW. “More importantly, it contradicts the findings on which the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR rested to allow the transfer of Uwinkindi.”
Transfer of Sikubwabo case file

Amidst fresh concerns about the independence of the Rwandan judiciary, Prosecutor General Ngoga announced on Wednesday the official transfer of the case file of genocide fugitive Charles Sikubwabo from the ICTR to Rwanda. This transfer is less contentious because Sikubwabo is still at large, but Ngoga said it was still important.

“This is another case where the suspect is still on the run, but it is as important as any other case at the ICTR. Looking at this trend and looking at how we are succeeding, we have reason to believe that it is likely we will succeed with the rest of the cases,” Ngoga told reporters. “Any member country of the United Nations should not be questioning the independence of the judiciary of Rwanda because they created the tribunal for them to assess the situation and the tribunal confirmed that Rwanda’s judiciary is independent.”
All eyes are currently on Kigali International Airport. But soon they'll turn back to court. Ingabire’s case resumes Monday.

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