November 23, 2019

Appeals Court Maintains Life Sentence For Former Presidential Bodyguard Mutabazi

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Lt Joel Mutabazi jump from van in which they were transported to hear their final appeal. While the others were in civilian clothing, Mutabazi the key suspect was in full military uniform and his rank (Photo by VOA)

The Court of Appeal on Friday maintained a life sentence for Lt Joel Mutabazi, an Israeli-trained commando, whom a military court found guilty of planning assassination of President Paul Kagame.

In an appeals verdict read in the afternoon, the panel of Justices first apologized for postponing the delivery of their decision for 4 times. They said the case was complex and needed careful handling.

Lt Mutabazi arrived late afternoon with 8 other accused amid heavy security. The appeal hearings were conducted in two groups: 7 of them did not contest their jail terms and instead admitted to all charges. Actually, these sought for forgiveness.

The other was made up Lt Mutabazi and Joseph Nshimiyimana, both jailed for life, who vigorously contested their sentences, demanding they be released because they have no case to answer.

Back in October 2014, Mutabazi and his co-accused were found guilty of varied charges. Mutabazi, the key suspect faced charges including perhaps the most serious; leading plan to assassinate President Kagame.

Mutabazi’s case is, to say the least, a complicated one. He was first arrested years back and he escaped – beating the 24hour top military surveillance. He surfaced in Uganda, where through movie-like sting operation, was brought him back to Rwanda.

Uganda’s all-powerfull former Police chief Gen Kale Kayihura is facing military prosecution for endorsing the alleged abduction of Mutabazi and sending him to Rwanda. Several other police officers are being punished.

The current fallout between Rwandan and Ugandan governments, for a significant part, emanates from Mutabazi’s case.

Graphic details appeared in the case, including, how Mutabazi had to be kept in a cell near the home of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, just so he could be safe. But, immediately he was let free, he ended up in Kigali.

At the beginning of this year, Mutabazi’s appeal was finally scheduled. In the Court of Appeal, Mutabazi narrated how he was being kept in a cell, for which one to access, you go through several doors. The people keeping him, perhaps, knew his commando training cannot be taken for granted.

He also pleaded with court that he was going blind and was not having enough to eat. All these were arguments, he brought forward to demonstrate his alleged illegal detention.

However, appearing for decision day, the appeals judges dismissed all his grounds and maintained the life sentence.

It took four and half hours for the justices to finish reading the sentence. Each read a portion of it then handed to another.

With the failed appeal, there is no other court left. The court process is now complete. It can only be possible if they have a new ground, unrelated to the appeal, to ask the Supreme Court. But this is very unlikely.

However, as par the legal statutes, Mutabazi and Nshimiyimana can petition the Office of the Ombudsman. Here they have to demonstrate beyond doubt that there were errors on the part of the military judges and appeals Justices who handled the case.

When the appeals judges completed reading the verdict, Mutabazi smiled as if not surprised at all. In his full military uniform and rank, he walked to the desk and signed. So did others as well.

And they were back to prison.

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