Benedict Moran

Rwanda genocide court’s stranded men

11 men living in Arusha safehouse were acquitted of genocide or served their time but say they are not yet free

ARUSHA, Tanzania — In a large house on a hill near the center of Arusha, in the East African nation of Tanzania, live 11 Rwandan men. From the outside, the building is nondescript, with white walls, a tiled roof and a black-gated entrance. The exact location of the building, which is known in this safari town as the safehouse, is a secret. For among the men there are leading figures of Rwanda’s interim government of 1994, which ruled during the genocide, when 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

They include Justin Mugenzi, a former minister of commerce; Casimir Bizimungu, a former minister of health; Jerome Bicamumpaka, a former minister of foreign affairs; Prospere Mugiraneza, a former minister of civil service; and André Ntagerura, a former minister of transport. Eight of the men were accused — and later acquitted — by the Arusha-based genocide tribunal of playing leading roles in the massacres. Three were convicted of war crimes and have served their sentences. All of them are in limbo, marooned by an international community that wants little to do with them.

Justin Mugenzi, minister of commerce in the 1994 interim government. In 2011 he was convicted of conspiracy to commit genocide and sentenced to 30 years in prison. That conviction was overturned in 2013. He is trying to join his wife in Belgium.
Benedict Moran

“Since I was acquitted, my goal has been to rejoin my family, to reintegrate into society and make an honest living,” said Bicamumpaka, 57, who was arrested in 1999 for conspiracy to commit genocide, murder, extermination and rape and was acquitted of all charges in 2011. “But right now I can’t do that.”

Their fate highlights one of the most significant gaps in the system of international justice. At the launch of the Rwandan genocide tribunal, arrangements were made to find locations to imprison individuals who were found guilty. But no arrangements exist to help resettle those who were acquitted. Though they are technically free, the men fear returning to Rwanda, and they live in what they call a virtual prison in Arusha, with no money or papers to travel overseas. Despite dogged efforts by court officials to find them new homes, there are no countries other than Rwanda willing to let them in.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in the aftermath of the 1994 atrocities, when the international community sought to hunt down and bring to justice those most responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international human rights law. The first case was tried in 1997, and 61 individuals were sentenced, including a former prime minister, army generals, clergy and members of the media. Most of these individuals are imprisoned in the West African countries of Benin and Mali.

After more than 20 years in operation, the ICTR is set to close on Wednesday. The situation of the stranded men, though, stands out as a challenge to the credibility of the system of international criminal justice. Of the 14 individuals who were acquitted, only six have found host countries willing to let them in. France and Belgium accepted two, and Switzerland and Italy have each taken one.

The remaining eight are growing increasingly desperate and spend their days languishing at the safehouse, lobbying governments, the United Nations and court officials for help.

Casimir Bizimungu was the minister of health in 1994 In 1999 he was arrested in Kenya on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and was acquitted of all charges in 2011. He is seeking to join his wife in Quebec.
Benedict Moran

Casimir Bizimungu stood in his small bedroom down the hall from the dining room, where the men were quietly sipping a lunch of chicken soup. Bizimungu, a former minister of health, was arrested in 1999 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted in 2011. Since then he has been trying to join his family in Canada. 

Near his bed, a framed picture of Bizimungu’s wife was propped up on a shelf. On a desk next to his Bible was a copy of a recently typed letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to become involved in the issue of their relocation. “I am waiting, I am hoping,” he said. “And I just keep patient. I am very patient.”

But the patience of many of the men is wearing thin. Relations between them are cordial, Bizimungu said, but frictions about mundane issues, like what to eat and what channel to watch, occasionally erupt. When not working on relocation, many of the men stick to a cycle of routine visits to the tribunal’s library and neighborhood barbershop, daily exercise and watching French television. Life at the safehouse could be summed up in one word — “boring” — Bizimungu said.

While many of the men have been living in the safehouse for years, they cannot remain in Tanzania indefinitely. According to an agreement signed between the ICTR and Tanzania, anyone acquitted by the court cannot seek residency in the court’s host country.

But returning to their homeland is not an option either. Many of the men fear that if they returned, they would be subject once again to war crimes charges. Rwandan government officials consider the acquitted guilty, despite the court’s verdict. Most recently, Rwanda’s ambassador to the United Nations, Eugene-Richard Gasana, called the acquitted men “masterminds of the genocide” who were acquitted “despite substantive evidence against them.” 

The court is therefore looking further afield for new homes. In 1994 many of the indicted men fled Rwanda with their families and scattered across various African and Western countries, where they were eventually be arrested. Court officials have traveled to many of these locations, hoping that family connections could provide a legal gateway for the men.

But lobbying countries to open their doors to a group of men stained with accusations of having committed the worst of crimes is an uphill battle that so far appears to have had little success. 

Innocent Sagahut was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His sentenced was reduced to 15 years, and in May 2014 he was released.
Benedict Moran

Officials say a number of countries that the court solicited for relocation, including France, believe the men could create internal political problems, especially in districts where Rwandan genocide survivors have settled.

Other countries are coming under intense pressure from the Rwandan government not to allow any relocation. “There are countries who have said that they have good working relationships with Rwanda,” said Bongani Majola, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general and registrar of the tribunal, adding that they fear “Rwanda would get very angry if they accommodate any of these people.”

Numerous requests for comment from the Rwandan government, both at the United Nations and in Kigali, went unanswered.

Then there is the fear that one or more of the men were complicit in mass murder and acquitted on a technicality.

But representatives of the court strenuously reject accusations that the trials were flawed. “Every stone has been lifted,” said Pascal Besnier, the head of judicial and legal services at the ICTR. “We genuinely think that they should be allowed to rejoin their families.”

As the activities of the court wind down, officials there say the failure to find new homes for these men represents a serious challenge to the credibility of tribunals, which are a cornerstone of international justice.

Many of the acquitted men spent years behind bars, both before and during their trials. Millions of dollars were spent on their prosecution and defense. But once found not guilty, they should have regained the full rights they had before being arrested.

“We cannot run a criminal justice system that recognizes convictions only and no acquittals,” said Majola. “It weakens arguments that people should be taken to the international criminal tribunals if they are going to become stateless after the whole process.”

In the safehouse, Bizimungu was hopeful that his application to settle in Canada will eventually be accepted. “I consider myself innocent,” he said, in the common room where the men hold Mass once a week. “And I should be able to enjoy the rights that stem from the fact that I’ve been acquitted.”

He added, “I have lost very precious years in my family’s life, from the time when my children were growing up. Those years are not recoverable.”

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