(New York) - An appeals court has upheld the 19-year prison sentence of a Rwandan human rights activist on genocide-related charges, failing to address the errors of a lower court judgment that violated Rwandan law and fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

The law that established gacaca requires judges who have had a past conflict with an accused to step aside, reflecting the principle that for a trial to be fair the judge must be independent and impartial. In the lower court proceedings, 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, and be seen to be independent and impartial,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “The appeals courts are supposed to guarantee that independence and impartiality, but in this case apparently failed to do so.”

Byuma, who heads an organization for the defense of children’s 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.

The trial court, relying on witness testimony, had found Byuma guilty, among other charges, of having assaulted a Tutsi during the genocide. At least one of those witnesses had testified in court four years before that another person was guilty of the assault.

The appeals court permitted Byuma to defend himself and allowed him to present court records establishing that a witness against him had previously testified that another person had committed the crime. Byuma was also allowed to explain that the trial court had failed to hear some of the witnesses whom he wished called in his defense. He said too that the court had not reconciled contradictions in the evidence presented. After hearing these arguments, the appeals court nonetheless decided to uphold the guilty verdict of the lower chamber.

The appeals court gave no reasons for its decision and offered no explanation of how it reconciled the requirement of impartiality with the fact that a judge of the lower court had a history of prior conflict with Byuma.

Byuma announced he would request a review of the decision. Under Rwandan law, such a review is possible only when a gacaca judgment conflicts with a judgment given in conventional court or when new evidence is discovered. Prior sessions were recorded on videotape, simplifying any review of the gacaca hearings.

“People put faith in the courts when they are fair and seen to be fair,” said Des Forges. “When an appeals court renders a decision that provides no reasoning and seems to take no account of evidence and of procedural errors in a prior trial, efforts to establish the rule of law in Rwanda suffer. Gacaca authorities should use available video recordings to review the case and assure that appropriate procedures were followed.”