Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal Takes One Halting Step Toward Justice

Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of Taba village in Rwanda, entered the courtroom escorted by two United Nations guards and sat on a bench shielded by bulletproof glass.

Mr. Akayesu, a Hutu, is the first person to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity at the international tribunal for Rwanda, which seeks to bring justice for the 1994 killings of up to 1 million Tutsis and allied Hutus.

The indictment against him says that on April 19, 1994, he addressed a meeting of more than 100 people in his village and urged them to eliminate the supporters of the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which later toppled the government. The killing of Tutsis in Taba began almost immediately after the meeting. Twelve charges of genocide, murder, and torture lay responsibility for the deaths of 2,000 Tutsis at his feet. He has pleaded not guilty.

In a report based on evidence from witnesses and survivors, the London-based human rights group African Rights says Akayesu "turned his office into a compound where Tutsis - including some of his own friends - were interrogated, murdered, and later dumped in mass graves close to the commune office." A number of those interviewed for the report may be called as prosecution witnesses by the tribunal.

According to African Rights, the fact that Akayesu is the first to be tried reflects the critical role that local officials played in the genocide.

While senior government ministers and military officers planned and executed the killings on a national level, local governors, mayors, and councilors were directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in their own areas.

But the tribunal aimed at identifying and punishing these crimes has been slow to act. Since its creation in November 1994, it has been dogged by lack of funds, bureaucratic inefficiency, and delays. Whereas the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal was able to move in to headquarters in The Hague, the Rwanda tribunal had to build its own facilities in the dusty Tanzanian town of Arusha.

For survivors of Rwanda's genocide, carried out over three months, the failure to have brought a single conviction after more than 2-1/2 years seriously dents the tribunal's credibility.

The tribunal's detainees currently number only three. Six others are in custody in Cameroon, Belgium, and Switzerland, awaiting transfer to Tanzania.

The legal aspects of the tribunal's work are clearly being worked out as matters proceed. Johan Scheers, the Belgian lawyer for Akayesu, says he has not had enough time and assistance to prepare his case. Although his client was arrested a year ago in Zambia, Mr. Scheers complains he had yet to receive an 800-page document containing prosecution witnesses' statements.

"If we want to have justice with a capital 'J', this is not possible," he says.

With a delay granted by the judges, the trial of Akayesu will now proceed on Oct. 31. The trial of Georges Rutaganda, vice president of the Hutu militia, was also pushed back - from October until next March - on the grounds that he is seriously ill.

The prosecution says priority must be given to the protection of witnesses. UN investigators in Rwanda report the recent killing, maiming, and intimidation of dozens of survivors who had cooperated with the tribunal. The prosecution won a ruling by the judges that the names and identities of witnesses will not be divulged to the public or press and will only be revealed to the defense once the witnesses are under the tribunal's protection.

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