As the Arusha-based International Tribunal on Rwanda’s mandate nears completion, Paul Kagame has been relentlessly lobbying for the remaining cases (and the suspects) to be transferred back home. According to the regime, this would give more meaning to accountability as the perpetrators are tried where the crimes were committed. Furthermore, the regime argues, the victims will get to witness and participate in the trials, which will help curb impunity. In principle, Rwanda’s requests are reasonable. However, the regime’s contempt for human rights and the rule of law begs the fundamental question of whether the suspects would be accorded proper justice.
The justice minister, Tharacisse Karugarama, has spoken often of judicial reform. However, for all the rhetoric, many are still rightly skeptical of Rwanda’s ability to hold free and fair trials, more so if the cases at hand involve opponents of the ruling regime. Politics and law seem too closely convoluted in sinister ways that leave human rights defenders uncomfortable. Yet, despite the concerns that have been raised, we are told that the United States supports the transfer of the cases to Rwanda. Such a move on the part of the US is rather misguided.
The US has played a pivotal role in the reconstruction of Rwanda. First, they were the main architects behind the founding of the ICTR, and even went to the extent of offering monetary rewards for the capturing of the genocide suspects. Moreover, the US has injected millions of dollars into Rwanda's purported judicial reforms. Perhaps the US has wrongly believed that the reforms were carried out. The reality on the ground shows otherwise.
At times, the US's roles has been controversial as well. The shielding of RPF’s members from ICTR’s prosecution is an extreme case in point. So extreme that some have nicknamed ICTR as the tribunal against Hutu. A travesty of justice, they have argued. Of course this is not entirely true. Even without the said US interference, it would have been politically and logistically unfeasible for ICTR to go after the RPF’s suspects.
For the most part, the cases in Arusha have been handled with high level professionalism and neutrality. Many have been convicted but others have been acquitted. The list of those released notably includes Protais Zigiranyirazo, a brother in law to President Habayrimana. Several high ranking officers in the former army have also been found innocent. This has helped restore some of ICTR’s lost credibility. However, the ICTR risks more tainting should the cases be handed to Rwanda. Indeed, it is beyond imagination to think that a high ranking officer in Habyarimana’s regime would ever be declared innocent the current Rwandan courts—evidence notwithstanding. Transferring this cases does not reflect the best interests of justice.
In the past, Rwanda been too critical of ICTR’s lawyers. The regime has frequently accused them of having been converted into genocidaires. The case of Peter Erlinder arrested last year in Rwanda is only but the epitome of a consistent campaign. Erlinder was illegally arrested while having traveled to Rwanda to represent her client, Madame Victoire Ingabire. It did not matter to Rwandan authorities that Erlinder could not be prosecuted for expressing the views of his clients. Such a case, once again, supports the fear that the Rwanda’s judiciary is too susceptible to political interference.
We also know that European countries have hesitated to extradite genocide-suspects to Rwanda for trial. Britain was prevented by its high court from making four extradition two years ago. In fact, yesterday, such a ruling was made by a court in Denmark. According to Amnesty International, the genocide-denial laws make it difficult for lawyers to defend their clients without fear of being arrested. Perhaps Rwanda should focus more on internal reform—of both the judiciary and the laws—before seeking to handle more cases. Such reforms would convince the rest of the world that the judiciary is civilized enough to merit extraditions.
In the meantime, until the necessary reforms are met, the US must reconsider its position.