Rwandan genocide trial marks key test for court

Top officials accused of orchestrating the 1994 massacre go on trial today.

The man who stands accused of masterminding the 1994 Rwandan genocide goes on trial today in what's being described as the most important test yet for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Theoneste Bagosora, former Rwandan defense minister and director of cabinet, faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes before the United Nations-sponsored tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

Colonel Bagosora is accused of being the architect behind the killing of some 1 million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers, the first mass killing to be categorized as genocide since the Jewish Holocaust. He has been compared to Heinrich Himmler, chief engineer of Nazi Germany's campaign against Europe's Jews.

"[Bagosora] was the big organizer of the genocide," says Claver Kayihura, vice president of Ibuka, a Rwandan genocide survivors' group. "The international community should give as much attention to the trial of Bagosora as it is giving to the trial of Slobodan Milosevic [the former Yugoslav president] in The Hague."

The trial may turn on whether anyone will testify to witnessing the officers plot the genocide or give the orders to carry it out. "People like Bagosora were not manning roadblocks with machetes in their hands," says Rwanda expert Filip Reyntjens of the University of Antwerp in Belgium. "There's generally no paper trail."

Until now, trials in Arusha have dealt with middle-level genocide suspects: mayors, regional administrators, and local leaders. Bagosora's trial is the first to examine those involved at the national level. Three other senior military officials are also being tried.

"The four officers ... are alleged to have worked at the very highest levels of the Rwandan Army to concoct the idea of the genocide and to work together with the highest levels of the Rwandan government to carry it out," says tribunal spokesman Kingsley Moghalu.

The prosecution says Bagosora's plan was formulated in 1993. As an ethnic Hutu, he was vehemently opposed to a peace agreement signed by Rwanda's then-President Juvenal Habyarimana – also a Hutu – to share power with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). For years, the RPF waged guerrilla war against the Hutu government.

"Bagosora felt the only solution to the political impasse in Rwanda was the total annihilation and eradication of the Tutsi population," says Mr. Moghalu.

On April 6, 1994, Mr. Habyarimana's plane was shot down, allegedly by Hutu extremists. Within hours, roadblocks were set up and the massacre began. The prosecution says Bagosora ordered the assassination of the moderate Hutu prime minister and several United Nations peacekeepers. Following this, most of the UN troops withdrew – and with them, any obstacles to the three-month extermination campaign.

Mr. Reyntjens says that after the plane was shot down, "[Bagosora] was the only one present in Kigali who had the means and the leverage to get the [genocide] going."

Bagosora's line of defense may be to argue that his actions were justified, because at the time the Rwandan government was fighting an ongoing war with the RPF, says a source close to the trial.

One of the accused, Lt. Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva, allegedly supervised the compilation of lists containing the names of Tutsis to be killed and was instrumental in establishing a fund to buy weapons used to carry out the massacre.

"There's no evidence directly implicating my client in the killings," says Colonel Nsengiyumva's lawyer, Kennedy Ogetto. Mr. Ogetto says his client is implicated simply because he was in the military at the time.

The tribunal is charged with trying those alleged to have had a high-level roll in organizing the genocide. It has so far arrested 60 of the 75 people under indictment. Eight have been convicted; one was acquitted. Twenty-one defendants currently stand before the court. The prosecution has laid out a plan to complete the investigations into another 111 suspects by 2004. If the UN grants the tribunal's request for 18 additional judges, the trials will wrap up in 2008, Moghalu says.

More than 100,000 people accused of carrying out the massacres are in Rwandan prisons. Community-based panels of judges will try those accused of all but the worst acts of genocide. Some 10,000 accused of leading the killings or of systematic rape face the traditional Rwandan courts, where the death penalty is an option.

Today's trial will be conducted by a panel of three judges. It is expected to last up to two years.

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