Rwanda genocide: Did Bizimungu trial take too long?

Augustin Bizimungu in Goma in 1994 Augustin Bizimungu, pictured in Goma in 1994, has been jailed for 30 years

It had hoped for longer sentences but the Rwandan government has welcomed the conviction of four senior military men over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

However, it says the well-resourced International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is far too slow.

The head of the army at the time of the 1994 genocide, Augustin Bizimungu, has been sent to jail for 30 years. He was arrested in Angola and handed over in 2002 to the tribunal based on Arusha, Tanzania. So why did the trial take so long?

Hassan Jallow, chief prosecutor at the ICTR, told the BBC that because the case had several defendants it required more lawyers, more evidence and more witnesses.

"It is a complex process. This is a court which is not located where the offences were committed, the witnesses are not based here nor are the defence counsel and the accused too, we have to look for them," said the Gambian-born lawyer.

He said that when only one person was in the dock, the time taken to complete the trial had been reduced to less than six months.

The ICTR has now completed 59 trials with eight acquittals since 1994.

In stark contrast, since 2002 more than one and half a million people have been tried in Rwanda's local courts - known as "Gacaca" - leading to 40,000 people being imprisoned. Human rights groups, however, question how fair some of these trials have been.

Huge costs

The Rwandan government has had a mixed relationship with the ICTR.

Start Quote

You had massive resources put at the disposal of the court and the amount of work, after so many years against the resources made available, leaves a lot to be desired”

End Quote Tharcisse Karugarama Rwandan Justice Minister

Rwanda's Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said: "It is very important to us that it has set an international precedent on the crime of genocide.

"The court has been able to bring to justice individuals that Rwanda as a country would probably have had extreme difficulty in bringing to book. Some are powerful people with powerful connections."

But, sounding like a disgruntled headteacher, the justice minister also pointed out some shortcomings.

"You had massive resources put at the disposal of the court and the amount of work, after so many years against the resources made available, leaves a lot to be desired," he said.

"We spend over $100m (£61.5m) per year," says the ICTR's Hassan Jallow. The tribunal has reportedly cost more than $1bn (£615m).

"A lot of our expenses go to paying the costs of the defence, as each of the accused is provided with a defence team," added the ICTR chief prosecutor, who believes the varying speeds of the judicial systems are inevitable.

"They are two different systems of trial entirely. Ours is a conventional international court with rules of procedure, rules of evidence to observe. The Gacaca trial is a traditional court which basically is much more informal [and] which naturally moves much quicker."

Regrets over victims

For some Rwandans, the lengthy and expensive trials of people they know have committed heinous acts can be frustrating.

Speed or Justice?

ICTR:

  • 51 guilty verdicts
  • 8 acquitals
  • 10 suspects on the run
  • Cost: $1bn

Rwanda's "Gacaca" courts

  • 1.5 million cases
  • 40,000 in prison

"They are very well-known in Rwanda. Most of these high-ranked soldiers, we know what they did, they were always on radio. We have survivors who saw them actually going around distributing the weapons," said Freddy Mutanguha, director of The Genocide Memorial Centre in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

He told the BBC he believed it would be a good idea to bring some of those accused of genocide from Arusha to Rwanda "because Rwanda has its own way to speed up the trials".

Rwanda's justice minister has the same wish but says he has been frustrated.

Mr Karugarama also said he regrets that the tribunal's mandate did not include compensation for the victims.

Justice following genocide is a daunting task but there are those who say some of President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) should also have faced justice in Arusha for war crimes in 1994.

The Rwandan government points to 42 cases where RPA soldiers have been tried in court and sentenced.

It says some enemies are trying to make political capital out of the justice issue.

"It is a very sad situation that people can want to turn a tragic story like genocide into a political saga by making wild allegations," said Mr Karugarama.

Some accuse the ICTR of being one-sided by not insisting on trying the RPA soldiers in Arusha, but the prosecutor denies any bias.

Suspects on run
Rwandan soldier at the genocide memorial in Bisesero, Rwanda The scale of the genocide shocked the world

"One of the reasons why we allowed the Rwandans to prosecute these serving military officers is because I think it has a better impact on efforts towards reconciliation if the Rwandans themselves are seen to prosecute their own people rather than in Arusha," he said.

While the Gacaca courts are set to finish by July, the ICTR expects to wind up at the end of the year. But with 10 suspects still on the run the work may never end.

Near the top of the list is Felicien Kabuga - a businessman accused of having bankrolled the genocide - with a $5m (£3m) reward on his head. The UN believes he has been hiding in Kenya, protected by politicians.

"The Kenyan government could be doing more in terms of investigating assets, working on leads concerning his presence and activities in Kenya. There is co-operation but we wish it could be much more," said Mr Jallow.

After the Rwandan genocide, the justice may have been slow but not compared to the healing. That may take generations.

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