At stake: credibility of war crimes tribunal

Appeals court reconsiders its decision to free Rwandan accused of genocide.

The credibility of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda hangs in the balance as its appeals-court judges ponder their decision on a man they set free on a technicality three months ago.

Charged with playing a central role in the massacres of 800,000 fellow Rwandans, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza - a senior politician - was arrested in Cameroon and transferred here in a tumultuous extradition that took more than a year and a half.

Mr. Barayagwiza was headed for trial as the mastermind behind genocide propaganda when appeals court judges at The Hague ruled in November that he should be released. They said his rights had been violated by sloppy prosecutors and incompetent court clerks, who let him spend 330 days in prison without charges and waited 98 days to bring him before the court.

Since the decision, the court's future - as well as the future of the man - has been in question, as outraged Rwandan authorities suspended crucial cooperation with the UN tribunal, holding up witnesses and denying a visa to chief war-crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponte.

Although Rwanda has since backed down on its demands that judges reverse their decision or else, the appeals court, which agreed to reconsider its ruling, has been asked to keep that threat in mind.

"Whether we like it or not, we must come to terms with the fact that our ability to continue our investigations depends on the support of the Rwandan government," said Ms. del Ponte in her arguments before a special review session of the appeals court Tuesday. "I'm asking you not to allow the accused ... to decide on the fate of this Tribunal the way he decided on the Rwandan genocide in 1994."

Rwandan authorities say they were stung by the court's decision to release one of the most wanted men in its custody.

"We are hopeful that both the judges and the prosecutor ... have had enough time to think of the repercussions if the case is not properly handled," argued Martin Ngoga, Rwanda's representative to the UN court.

At the heart of the case lie thorny questions about international criminal justice. How much should the tribunal be made accountable to the people of Rwanda, and how much should it strive to fulfill the highest standards of international law?

To Western lawyers, setting a few people free on legal technicalities is often the accepted cost of protecting the rights of everyone to due process. Legal observers from this school of thought call Rwanda's threats of noncooperation "blackmail."

But in Rwanda, where 100,000 peasants charged with genocide wait for years to go before a judge, the decision to set an educated, high-level politician free without a trial seems fundamentally unjust.

Relations have been historically poor between the Rwandan government and the UN tribunal, which is often considered too slow, too expensive, and too bogged down with complex legal procedures to render a meaningful justice to genocide survivors.

Rwandan justice ministry officials say the $75 million the tribunal will spend this year could be better spent on Rwanda's overburdened courts.

The fact that Rwanda's current government could also be considered suspect by the UN court for committing their own war crimes in 1994 has not increased trust between the two.

But even Rwanda's most hard-line officials say they accept the existence of the UN court, but wish that judges were as concerned with the human rights violations against genocide victims as they are against the suspected perpetrators.

"Between ... the severity of the alleged crimes and the rights and interest of the surviving victims of the genocide," Gahima said. "Any tribunal anywhere has got to strike a balance."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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