Global Policy Forum

Rwanda Tribunal in Turmoil


Noel Mwakugu

February 2, 2004

After eight years in slow motion, proceedings at the international court charged with prosecuting the main perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda have picked up pace recently.

Since the appointment of a new chief prosecutor and the posting of a number of extra judges to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) last year there have been several new convictions. A total of 18 people have now been convicted for their part in the 100 days of killing in which some 800,000 people were slaughtered, including the recent convictions of three key "hate media" executives. This progress has pleased critics concerned that the process could drag on indefinitely. And at a cost of $177m last year, there is a growing realisation that it cannot go on for ever. But this quickening pace has also angered defence lawyers so much that a two-day strike disrupted hearings last week. On average two sittings are now being held daily at the tribunal, which is based in Arusha, in northern Tanzania.

'Defence limited'

Defence lawyers say this quicker pace is bad for the pursuit of justice. Professor Peter Erlinder, a spokesman for the defence, says the tribunal set up actually limits the defence team in preparing for the cases. "We have been saying this for the past seven years but the issues are not being addressed by the registry, " he told BBC News Online. He says the defence is not convinced that the convictions of those already sentenced by the tribunal were even fair since they were unable to present their cases competently.


Prof Erlinder notes that the defence lawyers are denied an opportunity to investigate their cases adequately unlike the prosecutors. For instance, resources to undertake their research and investigations on the cases before the tribunal have been cut back, he claims. "Under these circumstances we feel that the tribunal cannot portray a fair image required by international law" he said. He said their access to clients at the United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) in Arusha is restricted and therefore their operations are curtailed. Prof Erlinder says these unresolved issues led 40 detainees to boycott the proceedings and effectively instruct them to stop appearing before the tribunal. The strike is now over, but their grievances have still to be resolved.

Crucial case

Their arguments are rejected by the ICTR spokesman Roland Amoussouga. He says adequate resources have been provided for the defence teams under the tribunal's legal aid system. Mr Amoussouga notes that out of the 81 people indicted, 65 are in custody and have been assigned lawyers to defend them by the tribunal. "We provide for the necessary requirements but our budget is not open ended, excessive claims cannot be met," said Mr Amoussouga. He said the tribunal is concerned that the stoppages by the defence counsel comes when testimony is being given at a crucial case for the tribunal. The lawyers' strike has affected the proceedings of a case involving Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, a former top defence official. "We are open to negotiations over issues raised, but the right procedures should be followed to avoid derailing what has been achieved so far," said Mr Amoussouga.

Sensitive issue

The BBC's Great Lakes Service reporter Ernest Sagaga says that one group that has been impressed with recent developments is the Rwandan Government Until Carla Del Ponte was replaced last year as the chief prosecutor at the tribunal there was a great deal of tension with the Rwandan administration which accused her of inefficiency. In her defence, she claimed the government was uncomfortable with her plans to investigate the involvement of former Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers in the genocide. Our reporter says the issue is sensitive - since most of the soldiers are in government or are politically connected to it. If the new chief prosecutor Hassan Jallow opts to revisit the investigations on RPF soldiers then there is bound to be trouble from the government again. Their stance is that the soldiers were preventing the genocide, he says. However this raises questions as to how the tribunal expects to pursue justice impartially when only one side will be investigated. This is a difficult one for the tribunal to sweep under the carpet indefinitely. But any move to broaden out the scope of the tribunal's investigations at the moment would only risk further battles and a reduction in its momentum that it can ill afford.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
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