March 18, 2020

Rwanda’s Unwanted: Acquitted of Genocide But No Country Wants Them


Five people acquitted years ago by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda are still waiting to find a host country. One of them for 16 years. This situation looks unlikely to change any time soon, for them and for four convicts who have served their sentences and share their containment, in the blind spot of international criminal justice.

You may sometimes encounter them in the streets of Arusha, but the five acquitted persons from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as four convicted persons who have served their sentences, never really stray far from the residence to which they are assigned. © Roman Boed

“I do some gardening to pass the time and stop me from going mad,” says one of the nine Rwandans living in a “secure residence” in the northern Tanzanian tourist town of Arusha. “I pass my time watching television, reading and praying,” says another one encountered at the counter of a pharmacy in the centre of town. “On Sunday I go to Mass.” “I have to walk for at least an hour a day in the town so as not to age too fast,” says a third, panting and sweating a little from his exertions around the neighbourhood. [The people interviewed asked to remain anonymous so as not to compromise procedures with potential host countries].

The nine residents of this unusual “safe house” were all tried by the ICTR, which closed its doors on December 31, 2015. Since then they are the responsibility of the international Mechanism charged with the residual functions of the UN’s international criminal tribunals. Five of them were acquitted, including former Rwandan transport minister André Ntagerura, who in February marked 16 years in this place since his judgment in 2004. The four others are people who were convicted but have served their sentences. 

The youngest of the residents is Captain Innocent Sagahutu, 58, and the oldest is Protais Zigiranyirazo, 82, brother-in-law of the late ex-president Juvénal Habyarimana. They live alongside three former ministers and four other former Rwandan army officers. None of them have travel documents, and so cannot leave Tanzania.

Memories of boarding school

“It’s certainly not a prison, but it reminds me of my secondary school days in a boarding school,” says one. In this residence guarded by the Tanzanian police, they can receive visits from friends and family. “It lifts our spirits a bit when a member of the family arrives,” says another. “But such visits are very costly for them, since many live far away.”

Since January 2019 they are subject to new regulations that carry sanctions if broken. The heaviest punishment is “definitive suspension of certain forms of assistance provided by the Mechanism to the person in question”. According to the rules, “residents must refrain from taking part in political activities aimed at destabilizing the government or which threaten the security of the State, including the host State”. They are also obliged to inform the Mechanism if travelling outside the Arusha region.

This rule was introduced after Sagahutu, one of the convicts who has served his sentence, was intercepted by the Tanzanian authorities in March 2017 in Ngara district, near the border with Burundi. The former Rwandan army officer told the Tanzanian press that he had wanted to visit relatives in Burundi. He was detained for some 20 days by Tanzanian immigration services before being brought back to the “safe house”.

Nothing in the Statutes

Sagahutu and his companions, who say they would not be safe in Rwanda, have one ambition: to join their families living in Western countries. Most of them have wives or children who now have citizenship of Western countries. But that has not helped the Mechanism to find them a host country, which it has been trying to do for years. The countries where they want to go are “reticent”, according to Mechanism spokesman Ousman Njikam, with some citing reasons of “public security”. “We have done everything we can, but the situation has not budged,” says Njikam, stressing that the Mechanism has no obligation to find them a place to go.

“It is understandable that a country might refuse to accept a convict who has served his sentence. But what does international justice mean if an acquitted man cannot be reunited with his family?” asks one of the five acquitted. The Statute of the ICTR insisted on the obligation of states to cooperate in the search, arrest and transfer of accused persons. It did not, however, make any provisions on what should happen to acquitted persons. The texts governing the Mechanism are also silent on this.

“They say they are afraid to go back to their country Rwanda, from which they had fled when they were arrested,” says Njikam. “They say they fear for their security. It’s not up to us to evaluate whether their reasons are justified or not. Nor can the Mechanism put them on a plane and deport them to Rwanda.” Given the reticence of Western countries to take them, he says the Mechanism has started to “approach African countries, especially francophone ones”, since French is the first foreign language of these former prominent persons.

Former health minister Casimir Bizimungu, who was acquitted, and former prefect of Butare Sylvain Nsabimana, who has served his sentence, were thus accepted by Ghana in October 2016. Their departure took place amid the greatest discretion, as did the negotiations that made it possible. As well as Bizimungu and Nsabimana, nine other people among the 14 ICTR acquitted have found host countries. The last one was Brigadier General Gratien Kabiligi, who died last month in France after joining his family in Belgium in October 2018.

Against fundamental rights

ICTR officials have, on several occasions, referred the situation of acquitted persons or persons released after serving their sentences to the Security Council. The Council has adopted several resolutions, but without any clause that is binding on States. During a debate in the Security Council on 17 July 2019, the President of the Mechanism, Judge Carmel Agius, once again appealed to the international community. These people “find themselves in a situation of unacceptable and untenable legal uncertainty,” said the Maltese magistrate. “This situation profoundly affects the human rights of these nine people, one of whom has been in this difficult situation since being acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2004. A permanent solution to this problem must be found.”

“The Mechanism emphasizes that it cannot solve the problem without the support and good will of Member States, who bear the ultimate responsibility for the fate of these nine individuals,” he said. The judge noted that his institution “continues to suffer the administrative and financial fallout from the need to provide them with housing and daily needs”. In addition to housing and medical care, each resident receives $350 per month for food, travel in the Arusha area, clothing and communications.

While the residents say this amount does not cover their needs, Rwanda thinks it is a misuse of taxpayers’ money. “They live very comfortable lives in Arusha at the expense of Member States, including Rwanda, as their cost of living and accommodation are paid through members’ assessed contributions to the Tribunal’s budget,” Rwanda’s representative to the UN Valentine Rugwabiza complained in a UN debate in July 2019. “This in itself symbolizes the tragic irony of the international justice system. Some Member States find it difficult to cooperate with the Office of the Prosecutor to bring to book those who committed the most atrocious crimes and yet find it normal that their taxpayers’ money is used to offer generous living allowances to those released many years ago after their acquittal. In some cases, living expenses and allowances have been paid by the ICTR and later the Mechanism for more than a decade. These continued payments by the Mechanism defeat every logic. Rwanda believes that they should simply be stopped”.

UN apologies?

But the acquitted people think the UN owes them a lot more. “Considering the harm done to the acquitted person, the fact that he has been unduly imprisoned for more than a decade, the fact that he was forcefully separated from his family, the fact that he can no longer take care of himself, the fact that he cannot exercise any income generating activities particularly because he has no identity document, the MICT has an obligation to take care of an acquitted person until he can be reunited with his family,” the residents wrote in a letter dated 21 April 2016 to Mechanism Registrar at the time John Hocking. “The harm done to us is so immense that some of its aspects might remain irreparable. The United Nations should therefore present excuses to the acquitted persons, do all it can to get them rehabilitated and reintegrated into society without forgetting to pay reparation”.

“Now they’re exaggerating. The freedom they enjoy today, even if it is not total, is priceless,” says a Mechanism official who prefers to remain anonymous. “I would advise them to be patient, to be less demanding and not to make too much noise.”

“Indeed, we have even been forbidden – although they didn’t dare write it in the rules – to talk about our situation to the media, on the pretext that it would complicate the ongoing negotiations to find host countries for us,” says one of the residents.

Source: Fondation Hirondelle

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