Pierre Basabosé is "mentally absent” but will be tried

Former Rwandan soldier and businessman Pierre Basabosé is less well known than Félicien Kabuga, whose trial was definitively stopped by a UN court on August 7 because he has Alzheimer’s. Basabosé, 76, also has senile dementia, but a Belgian court has decided – against the advice of the public prosecutor's office – to maintain his trial.

Pierre Basabosé - His trial for genocide (in Rwanda) is taking place in Belgium at the Brussels Assize Court.
At the Brussels Assize Court, the prosecutor and the president disagreed about the possibility of conducting the trial of Rwandan Pierre Basabosé, accused of genocide. © D.R.
3 min 20Approximate reading time

In the early ’90s, Pierre Basabosé was known for the foreign exchange bureau he ran opposite the main market in the Rwandan capital. Everyone in Kigali came to "Chez Basabosé" to exchange currency. After his early retirement from the army, Basabosé went into business and enjoyed dazzling prosperity, thanks to the presidential family’s support. Indeed, he was chauffeur to Colonel Elie Sagatwa, brother-in-law and private secretary of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose assassination on April 6, 1994 triggered the Tutsi genocide.

In September 2020, Basabosé was arrested in Belgium at the same time as Séraphin Twahirwa, an alleged former militia leader also said to have been close to the ex-presidential family. Both are to be tried for genocide under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Nearly 30 years after the crime, in mid-June 2023, there are not many people in the dark courtroom of the Brussels Assize Court.  Yet the court president is about to rule on an essential question, given that suspects in the 1994 genocide are getting old and a dozen cases are still in the federal prosecutor's pipeline. This mass crime that shook the world no longer draws the media. But on this hot day at the end of the judicial year, the court president must decide if Basabosé is mentally fit for two months of trial scheduled to start on October 9.

Prosecutor accepts experts’ report

The Rwandan is accused of genocide and war crimes in connection with events that took place notably in Kigali prefecture between January and June 1994. The issue of his mental health has been raised for two years now after the court received on September 6, 2021, a medical report ordered by the investigating magistrate from two psychiatrists and a neurologist.

"Our medico-psychiatric examination of Mr. Pierre Basabosé revealed the definite presence of significant cognitive disorders, with memory disorders, anterograde amnesia, temporal disorientation, judgment disorders, behavioural disorders, attention disorders in particular," reads the report conclusion of psychiatrists Pierre Oswald and Johan Kalonji, to which Justice Info has gained access. "This serious deterioration is of a degenerative dementia type [...], rendering Mr Basabosé incapable of discernment or control of his actions, his capacities having been reduced.” The neurological examination also confirmed "the presence of memory difficulties, particularly long-term memory".

"Mr. Basabosé's cognitive performance is reduced by a significant slowdown in information processing speed [...]. These elements confirm the presence of cognitive deterioration, particularly in the memory and executive/attention areas," states the report. This syndrome is "a priori irreversible and progressive", and there is "an unfortunate likelihood that the evolution of the disorder will eventually lead to his institutionalization [in a medical establishment]".

“He is mentally absent, does not understand anything”

Based on this grave medical report, federal prosecutor in charge of the case Kathleen Grosjean issued a recommendation on August 29, 2022 for Basabosé to be put in a medical establishment. In this document, which Justice Info was also able to consult, the magistrate noted that "the accused does indeed present a mental disorder in the form of neuropsychiatric dementia". "In his current state – he is mentally absent, does not understand anything -, what sense does it make to have him appear before a court and attend hearings every day for some two months?” she asks. “Institutionalization is a measure that should enable him to receive supervised care. It is a measure for the protection of society, but also for him.” In her conclusion, the prosecutor asked the Brussels Chamber of Indictments "to order the placement of Pierre Basabosé in care".

However, the chamber did not agree and, in a ruling dated September 19, 2022, referred the accused to the Assize Court. Nine months later, at a preliminary hearing, the issue came up again, this time in public before the Assize Court. On June 12, Basabosé's lawyer Jean Flamme argued that the proceedings were inadmissible on the grounds of his client's health.

President imposes trial

The president of the Assize Court ruled swiftly on the matter on June 21. She decided that the trial would go ahead, despite Basabosé's fragile mental health. In her ruling, the court president reiterated the arguments of the Indictments Chamber. "Pierre Basabosé's memory problems concern mainly recent or very recent events, whereas given the dates when he is accused, his memory does not appear to have been affected to such an extent that he cannot be tried," she writes. “The oral hearings at the Assize Court will likely enable Pierre Basabosé to recall the facts in question, understand what he is accused of, and defend himself."

The Assize Court's ruling, which omits that the medical report says Basabosé's long-term memory is also affected, seems to show its determination to conduct the trial at all costs – even though the prosecutor has said she will ask at the end of the trial for him to be put in a medical establishment in any case. In Brussels as in The Hague, both national and international justice are struggling with the challenge of certain genocide suspects’ mental health.

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