(New York) - A people’s court that sentenced François-Xavier Byuma, a Rwandan human rights activist, to 19 years in prison on genocide-related charges violated both Rwandan law and the fundamental principle that defendants must be given a fair trial before an impartial tribunal, Human Rights Watch said today.

The court, which issued its decision on May 27, is part of an innovative judicial system known as gacaca that was set up to try some 818,000 people accused of participating in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda.

The law that established gacaca requires judges who have had a past conflict with an accused to step aside, reflecting the principle that to be fair the judge be independent and impartial. In this case, however, the president of the gacaca jurisdiction, Fraridhi (Saudi) Imanzi, had a conflict with Byuma but did not step aside when asked to do so. Instead, he proceeded to hear the case along with four other judges.

“For gacaca courts to deliver justice, the judges must be independent and impartial,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.

Byuma, who heads an organization for the defense of childrens’ rights known as Turengere Abana, had previously investigated allegations that Imanzi had raped a young girl. Imanzi was briefly detained and questioned but never prosecuted for rape.

At a first hearing on the genocide charges, Byuma was present, but refused to speak in order to protest the court’s refusal to recuse judges as required by law. At a second hearing, he attempted to defend himself against the charges, but Imanzi, who was presiding over the session, cut off many of his answers and those of several witnesses who tried to speak in his defense, and in one instance accused a witness of lying.

Byuma was charged with being present at one of the barriers erected to prevent Tutsi fleeing the genocide, having a firearm, and participating in weapons training. The court acquitted him of the first two charges, but found him guilty of participating in weapons training.

In addition, the court found him guilty of several counts not mentioned when the charges were first read, including assaulting and abducting a woman. The woman testified at the trial to allegedly having been abducted and gave contradictory evidence of having been assaulted by Byuma. Such conflicting evidence about the incident was not reconciled or explained by the court in its decision.

After the verdict was announced, Byuma immediately said he would appeal the conviction.

The court acquitted two others on trial with Byuma and accused of the same charges, despite one of those acquitted having admitted his guilt on one of the charges.

“When gacaca courts are fair, they deliver justice for the genocide,” said Des Forges. “But when they fail to follow their own rules and standards of fair trial, they lose legitimacy and weaken efforts to establish a rule of law in Rwanda.”

“The appeals court should promptly and thoroughly examine the soundness of the verdict in the Byuma case, both in terms of the evidence and the fairness of the trial,” Des Forges added.