With the conviction of a former Rwandan minister, the Arusha genocide tribunal has wound up its trials and is now only hearing appeals.
Eighteen years have elapsed since the horrific genocide in Rwanda. In just a hundred days, militant Hutus murdered more than 800,000 people. Most of the victims were minority Tutsis or moderate Hutus. A few months after the killing had ceased, the UN Security Council ordered the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which is now located in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha. Its task was to prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda in 1994.
The ICTR has now sent former Rwandan minister Augustin Ngirabatware to prison for 35 years for "genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide and rape as a crime against humanity." He was also found guilty of distributing weapons.
When the genocide broke out, Augustin Ngirabatware, a Hutu, was minister for planning. According to the ICTR's verdict, it was in this capacity that he organized the genocide together with a group of fellow Hutus. He arranged for weapons to be handed out to the militias and called on them to carry out murder.
Gerd Hankel, an expert on Rwanda at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, says Ngirabatware was a typical Arusha defendant. "The whole purpose of Arusha was to ensure that the high-ranking organizers, those pulling the strings in the background during the genocide were brought to account for their actions," he said.
Testimony from almost 100 witnesses
Ngirabatware was arrested in Germany in 2007. Before taking up his cabinet post, he had been a university lecturer. His trial was very involved and went on for four years. The court heard almost a hundred witnesses, who had to be brought to Arusha specially for this purpose. The judges also travelled to Rwanda to examine the scene of the crime.
This was not the court's only case. The logistics, the distance from the court in Tanzania to the scene of the crime in Rwanda, plus the legal provisions under which every defendant is entitled to a team of defense lawyers, mean that the cost of running the tribunal now amounts to 100 million dollars annually. ICTR spokesman Roland Amoussouga describes the Ngirabataware trial as a "very important milestone" in the work of the tribunal. There are now no more suspects facing their first trials.
The work of the ICTR was supposed to have been wound up after 18 years. But its mandate was extended until the end of 2014 so it could hear appeals. Amoussouga says Augustin Ngirabatware's lawyers are also entitled to appeal and it is most probable that they will do so.
Others who were convicted were, like Ngirabatware, highly placed individuals operating behind the scenes. They were ministers, journalists, top military officials and civil servants. 12 defendants were pronounced guilty and sent to prison for life, ten were acquitted.
Yet the ICTR has its critics. Under its mandate defendants are only prosecuted for crimes committed between the January 1, 1994 and the December 31, 1994. But according to Hankel, it has chosen to ignore the fact that those who were later to emerge as the victors also committed crimes during this period. "The court hasn't dealt with this at all. For this reason, the court is seen by broad sections of the Rwandan population as a victors' tribunal, which speaks on behalf of the regime in Kigali," he said.
The victors were the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Led by Paul Kagame, now the president of Rwanda, the RPF conquered the country in 1994 and put an end to the genocide. The RPF remains in power to this day. Critics say it, too, committed crimes, including murder, both while its military were advancing and after the genocide was over.