(New York) - Next week four Rwandans will come before a Belgian court to answer charges of involvement in the 1994 genocide in their country. Their trial marks a major development in international justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
"This is the first time a jury of ordinary people will judge ordinary people of another country who have been accused of such terrible crimes," said Alison Des Forges, Senior Advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, who will be an expert witness at the trial. "The jurors will have to surmount the barrier of cultural differences to understand a context unlike any they have ever known. They will have to confront the horror and try to look into the hearts of people accused of behavior that seems unimaginable."
None of the four accused was a government official at the time of the genocide. Consolata Mukangango (Sister Gertrude) and Julienne Mukabutera (Sister Marie Kisito) were members of a religious congregation. Alphonse Higaniro headed a match factory and Vincent Ntezimana was a professor at the National University of Rwanda.
Although the charges arise from a genocide, the accused will be tried at the Brussels Cour d'Assises for violations of the Geneva conventions and of the Belgian penal code because genocide was not a crime under Belgian law in 1994. The trial is expected to last six weeks.
Since the international community acknowledged its responsibility for punishing crimes against humanity, professional jurists have judged the accused in international tribunals like that at Nuremberg after World War II and like the two international tribunals set up by the United Nations to hear cases from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Two years ago, a Swiss military tribunal became the first national court to judge such a case where neither the perpetrator nor the victim was a citizen of its state and where the crime took place elsewhere. The Swiss court found a Rwandan burgomaster guilty of violating the Geneva conventions and sentenced him to life in prison, a sentence later reduced on appeal to twenty years.
International justice has proved expensive and slow, in part because the court must deal with different languages and legal traditions. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda will never judge more than a relatively small number of the perpetrators and now is focusing on those who held important posts in the government, the military, the media, and in political parties.
In Rwandan courts, judges have tried more than 4,000 of their fellow citizens on charges of genocide, but no jury trials have been held. The government will shortly launch a system of participative justice called "gacaca" in which popularly elected judges will decide the fate of the accused. More than 100,000 persons await trial in Rwanda, some of them having spent nearly seven years in detention without being judged.
Rwandan courts and the gacaca proceedings will deal with the vast number of persons accused inside the country, but they will rarely try those now in exile. In some cases, other governments may refuse to extradite accused persons to Rwanda because of concerns about the fairness of the proceedings or about the possible imposition of the death penalty.
"Some of those who committed genocide in Rwanda will never come before either the International Tribunal or Rwandan courts," said Des Forges. "Unless the judicial systems of other nations try the accused who end up on their territory, some persons guilty of the most heinous crime known to humankind may escape punishment."
Administrative, military, and political authorities directed the 1994 genocide, which killed at least half a million of the Tutsi minority in one hundred days. With the help of radio stations, the authorities incited and ordered ordinary people to participate in the killing campaign. In some cases those who refused to kill or who tried to save Tutsi were themselves slain.
"For decades we all have decried crimes against humanity," Des Forges added. "This trial in Belgium offers the hope of transforming our anguish into something more effective, a way to punish and perhaps even prevent such horrors."
In 1999 Human Rights Watch together with the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues published Leave None to Tell the Story, an 800 page history based on five years of research.