Catholic clergy on trial in Rwanda

For the first time in history, a Catholic bishop is charged withgenocide. His trial resumes Thursday.

Bishop Augustin Misago isn't your typical martyr.

Yet to the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Misago is just that. With his trial for war crimes scheduled to resume Thursday, he's seen as a scapegoat standing up to the Rwandan state that is determined to try the church for its role in the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis.

The church's outrage stems from the fact that Misago is charged with crimes against humanity - failure to provide assistance to people in danger and incitement to murder. And he is not alone.

Twenty other Catholic priests are facing similar accusations - but he is the highest Catholic official to be charged with genocide in Rwanda. The local Hutu clergy has been accused of offering no resistance, and in some cases assisting in the massacres that took place in many of its churches.

The Catholic Church has since insisted that the church as an institution is not to blame, though some individuals may have bloodied their hands. Analysts say this position has influenced the state's decision to bring the bishop to trial.

The trial got under way on Sept. 14 in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, with the prosecution reading out the names of all the people Misago could have saved, and allegedly didn't. Misago responded by comparing himself to Jesus, oppressed by the weight of the cross. And it came to a pause last week with a genocide survivor, an old woman, wailing outside the courtroom: "I lost my mother, my father, my sister, and all my brothers. He never helped anyone, even though he had the power to, he never lifted a finger. I know what he did."

Misago is specifically accused of turning over three Tutsi priests to genocide perpetrators. He is also charged with turning a deaf ear in April 1994 to the pleas of 30 young school girls seeking aegis from armed Hutus. The girls were later killed.

Misago flatly denies both charges, insisting that with no security detail he had no way to protect them.

What Misago did or didn't do is up to the judges to decide, the church says. But church officials say the outcome has already been determined. "I am a hostage," Misago said in an interview last week in Kigali's central prison. "This is a trial against the Catholic Church."

The prosecution has ascribed to him the role of planner and organizer of the genocide, placing him in "Category 1" of Rwanda's genocide law, an offense for which the death penalty is automatically invoked.

Yet the prosecutor's 300-page case file of evidence against Misago to date contains no evidence of his participation in the planning and execution of the genocide. It does list the statements of many genocide survivors who maintain that, as a figure of authority, he could have used his considerable powers to save the lives of many Tutsi refugees who had sought sanctuary in schools, hospitals, and churches across his diocese and were instead mercilessly murdered there.

"Bishop Misago is accused of having participated in the organization of the genocide," says Kigali's chief prosecutor Emanuel Rukangira. "We are accusing Misago personally - not the church."

"It is possible, even probable that as a bishop, Misago could have done more than he did," says a Kigali-based Western observer. "But to place him in Category 1 is absurd."

Critics cite the chronology of evidence gathering as indicative of a political agenda in this case. Misago was first accused by Rwanda's president, Pasteur Bizimungu, on April 7 of this year, at a memorial service marking the fifth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

No arrest papers were produced at the time, and no evidence produced to justify his arrest.

The following day, Rwanda's justice minister, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, claimed in an interview with the BBC that Kigali's chief prosecutor, Emmanuel Rukangira, had amassed a sufficient body of evidence to incriminate Misago and justify his arrest.

The first evidence collected against Misago, the testimony of a genocide survivor, is dated April 16, 1999 - two days after the prelate's arrest.

"What do you want? This is Rwanda," says a longtime observer of the region. "All you need is a couple witnesses whispering something in Kinyarwanda [Rwanda's language], and that's the end of that."

The apparent sloppiness of the prosecution's case, the witnesses who contradict each other, and the apparent disregard of evidence pointing to Misago's innocence - such as the testimony of a worker in the bishopric who says Misago parted with large sums of money to keep the genocide's militia at bay - seem to confirm the often-voiced suspicion that this is a political trial against the Catholic Church.

"There is a difference between "historical justice and legal justice," says Alison Des Forges, a historian and Rwanda researcher with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group.

"The courtroom is there to try the individual and not the institution. History's judgment of the church should and will be rendered. But not this way," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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