Convicted of genocide, former Rwandan cabinet minister loses last attempt to stay out of jail

It has been a busy couple of months for one of the lesser-known – but critically important – courts in Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha houses a number of significant judicial bodies apart from the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Among these is a United Nations tribunal: the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, Rwanda (IR-MCT). In a momentous ongoing case, a former Rwandan minister of planning, Augustin Ngirabatware, already convicted on several genocide-related charges, asked that the IR-MCT appeal chamber consider his claim that he had acquired sensational new evidence. This evidence was that four key witnesses who testified against him had recanted and now claimed they had not told the truth during his trial. At special hearings in September and October, the IR-MCT in Arusha considered Ngirabatware’s claims and related matters. The outcome, however, did him no good at all.

For those attending hearings of the IR-MCT’s Appeal Chamber in Arusha towards the end of September, each day brought new surprises.

Seven court days, between 16 and 24 September, were focused on the evidence of four witnesses who gave crucial testimony in the trial of Ngirabatwane some years before. It was mainly because of their evidence to the court that he was convicted of both direct and public incitement to genocide, and of instigating and abetting genocide.

But now the four all claimed to have been lying in the evidence they had given at the trial. They said that they had hoped for lenient treatment if they gave this ‘false evidence’ at his trial and indeed two of the four had been released from prison in Rwanda where they were on death row after their own original convictions.

Now, they claimed, they wanted to tell the truth: their trial evidence should be discounted by the court because it had all been a lie.

During the evidence of these first two witnesses however it emerged that they had been paid by supporters of Ngirabatware to retract their initial testimony.

Ngirabatware’s counsel also wanted to persuade the appeal judges that both the third and fourth witnesses, whose testimony had been crucial in the second count on which Ngirabatwane was convicted, were unreliable. They too, now wanted to retract their initial evidence and say that they had not told the truth during their trial evidence.

Except that this is not what they ended up testifying. Yes, indeed, they had signed retractions of their first evidence, given to the trial court. But now they told the Appeal Chamber that these retractions were false. The evidence that they had given during the trial should stand: it had been true after all.

Three days after the end of the hearing, on 27 September, the Polish-born president of the Appeal Chamber, Judge Theodor Meron of the USA, flanked by the four other members of the court, Judge Joseph Chiondo Masanche (Tanzania), Judge Lee Muthoga (Kenya), Judge Aminatta N’gum (Gambia) and Judge Gberdau Kam (Burkno Faso), read out their unanimous decision, now also available on social media for the public to watch and hear.

Judge Meron said all members of the court agreed that Ngirabatware’s ‘new facts’ that he had claimed would upset the findings against him and overturn his conviction, had not been proved, and the original conviction and sentence would stand.

But the matter did not end there.

In mid-October, Ngirabatware was back in the IR-MCT.

This time it was for an initial hearing in relation to further, new, charges against him: these relate to contempt of court and obstruction of justice, for his alleged role in getting the four witnesses to recant their evidence.

Ngirabatware asked for the charges to be read out to him, and then pleaded not guilty.

Among the allegations on the charge sheet are that he used several intermediaries to ferry messages, money and even statements he had drafted for the witnesses to sign, all while in prison serving his 30-year sentence for genocide.

The new charges he will now face include preparing evidence that the intermediaries would direct the witnesses to give to the appeal chamber judges when the matter was heard. He also arranged considerable sums of money to be paid the witnesses through the intermediaries. One witness was even offered a house in exchange for recanting. The payments were made at a variety of places – churches, markets and the homes of relatives. The charges also point out that Ngirabatware knew the four were ‘protected witnesses’ and thus were not to be identified, and yet he had disclosed their identity to the intermediaries.

At the end of the reading of the charges, Judge Vagn Joensen, the single judge presiding at this initial stage of the new case against Ngirabatware, ruled that it would not be in the interests of justice for the contempt case now pending against the convicted man to be heard by a court of national jurisdiction. Instead it should be heard by the IR-MCT.

A date has yet to be set for the trial on contempt and obstruction of justice to begin, but since the court’s calendar shows no hearings scheduled for November or December, this is clearly a matter that will be heard next year.

Ngirabatware was appointed Minister of Planning in Rwanda during July 1990. Arrested in Germany during September 2007, he was charged with actions he took to commit genocide during 1994. He was initially sentenced to 35 years in jail but on appeal the court found his conviction for rape could not be sustained. In view of that decision, the court reduced his sentence to 30 years.

Justiceinfo.net quotes prosecutor Serge Brammertz as saying he was satisfied by the decision to dismiss Ngirabatware’s ‘new evidence’ aimed at ensuring that his initial convictions would be overturned. The Rwandan National Commission for the Fight against Genocide is also quoted as saying that Ngirabatware’s attempts to introduce ‘new evidence’ was based mainly ‘on a broader plan aimed at “creating jurisprudence for the revision of other final judgments pronounced by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and thereby undermining their legality and legitimacy.”’

*The International Criminal Court has sentenced former Congolese military leader, Bosco Ntaganda, to 30 years in prison. During July, Ntaganda was convicted of war crimes including murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers, but he was only sentenced on Thursday this week. He was found guilty on 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for acts committed when he was military operations chief for the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia in easern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002-2003. Ntaganda had been tried for keeping women as sex slaves during the time he directed military operations. He had also, himself, murdered a Catholic priest.