Since 1996 until today, linguistics academic Dr Leon Mugesera has been before a judge battling to clear his name despite overwhelming evidence against him.
Appearing today before the Court of Appeal in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, donning a large Rosary which reached his waist, Mugesera’s appeal against a life sentence was dismissed. The panel of Appeals Judges upheld the sentence for his role in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
Immediately the presiding pronounced that the life sentence had been maintained, Mugesera could be seen shaking his head and smiling – indication it was what he had expected. He put up his hand, was granted permission, and he announced in a raised voice that he was appealing against the Court’s decision. The case is back to square one.
When the mass extermination of Tutsis began in April 1994, Mugesera was long gone. But in recorded statements and speeches made years earlier, Mugesera had helped coin some of the language and campaign messages used to rally extremists to kill Tutsis.
On November 22, 1992, as the vice-president of the ruling Hutu MRND party for the Gisenyi Prefecture, Mugesera gave a speech to an audience of around 1,000 people calling for the extermination of individuals of Tutsi origin.
In August 1993, Mr. Mugesera left the country as a refugee and was granted permanent residence in Canada. However, in 1995, the Canadian government through Minister of Citizenship and Immigration received information that Mugesera’s 1992 speech could have been considered an incitement to commit murder, genocide or hate, and a crime against humanity.
In July 1996, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board ordered Mugesera’s deportation. This was affirmed by the Appeal Division of the Board in 1998.
That triggered a legal battle that took him all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where he ultimately lost in 2005.
Mugesera had applied to the Canadian Federal Court for judicial review to determine whether a mere speech could constitute a crime against humanity or an incitement to commit murder, genocide or hate. The Federal Court agreed with the latter charge but found the speech was not a crime against humanity. The Federal Court of Appeal held that all the Minister’s allegations against Mugesera were unfounded and set aside the deportation order entirely, finding that Mugesera’s speech had had, at most, a “negligible impact” on the “daily life” of Rwandan citizens.
The Supreme Court of Canada resolutely reversed these decisions in 2005. The judgment of Mugesera v Canada, restored the deportation order, concluding that Mugesera had given a speech that he had intended to result in the commission of murders and had, furthermore, known his speech would be understood as an incitement to commit murder and genocide. His speech had also encouraged hatred and violence against the Tutsi group. Finally, the Court found that Mugesera had committed a crime against humanity through persecution by hate speech.
Following the Canadian Supreme Court decision, the Canada Border Services Agency solicited an opinion from the Minister to study all the circumstances surrounding Mugesera’s removal, including the gravity of his acts and the risks of persecution and torture he might face should he be sent back to Rwanda. By November 2011, the Minister had decided that Mugesera’s deportation would not violate his rights and ordered his removal (deportation).
Mugesera, in a final rally, applied for an injunction against the Minister’s decision at the Federal Court and, subsequent to its dismissal of his application, at the Québec Superior Court.
On January 11, Justice Shore easily dismissed Mugesera’s application, ruling that an “inherent logic” was apparent throughout the Minister’s decision. He found that Canadian authorities had diligently applied for and scrutinized assurances from the Rwandan government concerning Mugesera’s safety, well-being, and guarantee of a fair trial, particularly given the high profile of his case. Safeguards provided by Rwandan authorities.
Despite other legal manoeuvres, Canadian government put Leon Mugesera on a chartered flight to Rwanda. The plane touched down at Kigali international airport at 11.30 pm on Tuesday January 24, 2012.
A week later, Mugesera appeared at a lower court in Kigali where he was charged. It took months for the substantive hearings to start, as Mugesera raised legal hurdle after another. And he has seemed to enjoy the drama.
It was appeal after another, over different elements of his case. Eventually, the High Court on April 15, 2016 – four years after deportation from Canada, convicted Mugesera to life sentence.
The High Court ruled in nearly 5-hour ruling that Mugesera was guilty of multiple counts, including incitement to commit Genocide, inciting ethnic hatred and persecution as a crime against humanity. He was, however, cleared of charges related to preparing and planning the Genocide and conspiracy in Genocide after the court found there was not enough evidence to convict.
Since 2018, Mugesera has been fighting to overturn this life sentence at the Court of Appeal. However, like previous court appearances, Mugesera was visibly enjoying provoking angry outbursts from Judges. Mugesera was always ready to appeal against everything he had to favor in the law.
At some stage before the appeals could start, Mugesera put his hand up and raised two ground; wanted to know names of all Justices on the bench, and be allowed to follow proceedings while seated as he said he was sick.
The bench allowed him to sit. The presiding Justice asked Dr Mugesera and his lawyer Jean Felix Rudakemwa to move forward to table of the Justices to be told the names. After all the bench members were done, Mugesera shouted in full court that bench member Kaliwabo Charles be removed.
“Kaliwabo Charles should recuse himself from the bench because he convicted me influenced by the hate he has for me,” said Mugesera.
In the following minutes, there was back-and-forth exchanges between the bench, Dr Mugesera and his lawyer. The presiding Justice was attempting to downplay Mugesera’s concerns, which was rejected outrightly. He said he would go up to Supreme Court.
At one point while in jail at Mpanga prison in Nyanza district, which is an international facility with services not in any other jail like satellite TV, Mugesera went public in 2017 accusing prison of refusing to provide him with non-sugar bread.
“Everything else is fine here,” said Mugesera in interview published by a Canadian agency, adding, “except that the prison is not availing me with ‘Pain de Ble entier’ bread which is bought from La Galette bakery and Simba supermarket.”
Dr Mugesera said the speech before Appeals court has had other sentences added to make it horrible and thereby lead to his conviction. Audio experts have confirmed that the speech before court is fabricated, said Mugesera.
Asked by the Appeals bench to tell court his version of what the original speech was, Mugesera said he doesn’t remember because the words were spontaneous and not a prepared script.
According to prosecution, the audio was retrieved from the archives of the state broadcaster ORINFOR, now called the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA).
Prosecution for its part told the Appeals bench that Mugesera’s assertions should be ignored and considered as part of his deliberate scheme to drag the case on endlessly.
Even as the Court of Appeal has upheld the life sentence, it is only the start of another legal battled now headed to the Supreme Court.