Release of Rwanda’s mastermind of death promotes genocide denial

BY PATRICK KARURETWA

The recent encouraging news of the arrest in Germany of two of Rwanda’s suspected criminals, Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni, overshadowed the latest development in the appeal chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).  On November 16, the tribunal reversed a 20 year prison sentence and ordered the immediate release of Protais Zigiranyirazo (“Mr. Z”). Based on a finding of ‘serious errors’ in the first chamber’s handling of the defendant’s alibi, the decision immediately sparked a wave of protest and consternation in Rwanda and the Rwandan diaspora.

The release of a suspected war criminal will not create much disturbance in a country where convicted killers live side by side with their victims’ relatives. The community-based gacaca, a local justice mechanism, have tried hundreds of thousands cases. They have also allowed the release of thousands of perpetrators under a plea-bargaining scheme.

But Mr. Z is not your usual genocide suspect. He is largely considered one of its masterminds.  Many feared him too much to pronounce his full name, for Mr. Z is the brother of Agathe Kanziga, wife of the former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana. 

Zigiranyirazo’s reputation as a radical extremist went beyond Rwanda’s borders. In 1993, he was expelled from the Université de Québec à Montréal – and then from Canada altogether – after being convicted of uttering death threats against Tutsi refugees in Montreal. He moved back to Rwanda, where he was already known as the head of the ‘Akazu’, an informal but powerful organization revolving around the former president’s wife, who controlled the ominous ‘Zero Network’ death squads.

The existence and sinister agenda of the ‘Zero Network’ death squads were revealed as early as 1992 in the Rwandan press and confirmed in various local and international fora throughout the years that led to the genocide. General Roméo Dallaire, the UN peacekeeping commander, sent a now-famous report to New York in January 1994 based on the very detailed information and warnings provided by Jean Pierre, one of several defectors of the ‘Zero Network’. Everything Dallaire’s informant told him became reality three months later, and close to a million human beings were slaughtered. Like all other defectors, Jean Pierre had mentioned ‘Mr. Z’ as one of the key actors in the preparations.

Today, Mr ‘Z’ is a free man. The Trial Chamber, because of serious procedural errors, had led to a finding that he is not guilty. The memories of thousands of Rwandans of the vicious anti-Tutsi roadblocks he had established in direct proximity of all his residences in Kigali and Gisenyi weigh little or nothing to the court. 

It is useful to remember that the ICTR was established by the UN Security Council Resolution 955 with the dual objectives of accountability and deterrence on the one hand and reconciliation and peace on the other hand. In the words of Richard Goldstone, the Tribunal’s first prosecutor, the ICTR trial process is “an important means of promoting peace and reconciliation in Rwanda, providing catharsis to survivors.”

By clearing Protais Zigiranyirazo of any culpability, the appeal chamber arguably followed international standards of justice. The consequence of that decision, however, is not a simple mistrial. It is the acquittal of a man whose acts, though not properly documented by a prosecutor, are not easily forgotten in a country where genocide was committed in broad daylight.

How much consideration was given to the assessment of the impact on peace and reconciliation that the Tribunal is meant to serve? How locally relevant are the decisions of a transitional judicial body that applies rules and processes developed to address fundamentally different realities than that of a genocide? Most importantly, what are the implications of Mr. Z’s release for the very concept of Genocide Planning?

No planning = No genocide?

‘Mr. Z’ was reportedly still stunned by the appeal chamber’s decision when a news release co-signed by his lead defense attorney, Jean Philpot, celebrated the rejection, for the second time, of the charge againt him of genocide planning. The press release also calls for “the ICTR trials to be halted, ICTR convictions to be reviewed by an independent UN Commission, and the conditional release of detainees”.

Interestingly enough, Jean Philpot is the brother of no other than Robin Philpot, the Canadian politician who, in 2007, attracted intense media attention for repeatedly denying the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. 

For Jean Philpot, Peter Erlinder and others, the concept is quite simple: no planning = no intent = no genocide.

But the genocide deniers’ campaign goes beyond the ICTR trials. A small but very active group of academics, often with ties of some kind to the ICTR defense lawyers, does not miss an opportunity to propagate their revisionist views. In the words of Professor Gerald Caplan: “the deniers’ reach and influence has been spreading, metastasizing like a malignant cancer, thanks to the anarchy of the blogosphere and to the embrace of the deniers’ arguments by a small but influential number of left-wing, anti-American journals and websites. Google Rwanda and you will quite likely get a deniers’ rant featuring the tiny band of usual suspects.…”

Similarly, Oxford University’s Phil Clarck worries about the increasing influence of deniers in the form of “scholars pursuing the latest academic fads that revel in ‘alternative narratives’, no matter how spurious or morally questionable; ‘génocidaires’ seeking to deflect attention from their crimes; and critics of the current Rwandan government who try to connect alleged RPF crimes to unrelated concerns with its current policies.”

Despite the lack of evidence for their assertions and the extensive works of reputable scholars and organizations that amply documented the planning of the 1994 genocide, this group persists. Could we be witnessing their increasing influence over the ICTR? An increasing number of genocide survivors apparently think so.

International justice for the international community

“Arusha’s justice is not ours. It is yours. That Tribunal was created to cleanse your conscience”.
– Yolande Mukagasana, survivor of the genocide, November 18, 2009

Yolande lost her three children as well as her husband, brothers and sisters. She has devoted her life to supporting genocide survivors in Rwanda. She has seen and heard enough. Her cynicism can therefore be forgiven when she suggests that the ICTR should imprison the orphans and widows instead of the killers. “At least they will have three meals a day. At least they will have a shelter. At least they will get medical care,” Mukagasana writes.

International standards of justice certainly have their own merits. There is, however, room for much more thinking on their societal impact in a post-conflict context.

For several years, Rwandan genocide survivors have been accusing the ICTR of repeatedly neglecting and watering down their testimonies. Today, they are once again in dismay. They feel ignored and abandoned, blocked from appaearing before the ICTR’s bench in Arusha, Tanzania, to tell the terrible truth. Arusha’s justice is not theirs if it considers Mr. Z an innocent man.

The ICTR has spent more than 1 billion dollars and completed less than 50 cases. With its profound detachment from Rwanda’s social realities, the tribunal could not be further from its claimed objective of contributing to national reconciliation.

Patrick Karuretwa is a Rwandan lawyer studying at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as its first ever LL.M./M.A.L.D. joint degree candidate.

 

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