"What judicial truth without material evidence?"

During their closing arguments, Vincent and Juliette Lurquin went out of their way to defend their client Séraphin Twahirwa, a Rwandan charged before the Brussels Assize Court with having participated in the 1994 genocide. To try and deconstruct the prosecutor's wall of evidence, this father and daughter lawyer duo went right back to the start of the case. The second defendant, Pierre Basabosé, and his lawyer Jean Flamme remained in the shadows.

Rwandan Séraphin Twahirwa and his two lawyers, Vincent Lurquin and Juliette Lurquin, at his trial in Belgium. He is on trial for his alleged involvement in the genocide in Rwanda.
Rwandan Séraphin Twahirwa, accused in Belgium of murder and rape during the 1994 genocide, with his lawyers Vincent Lurquin and Juliette Lurquin, who question the independence of the investigation from the authorities in Kigali. © Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP
4 min 12Approximate reading time

At 2pm on a Friday, the Brussels courthouse emptied, but a trial was still in full swing in a first floor room. Inside were journalists, pupils and their teacher, a prosecutor, lawyers, Rwandans living in Belgium and even a former Belgian ambassador to Rwanda. They were all curious to hear the defence arguments of a man presented as leader of one of the best armed and trained Interahamwe militias in Rwanda in April 1994 -- a militia responsible for causing a massacre in the Gikondo sector of Kigali.

Lawyer Vincent Lurquin stood before a jury that was a bit weary after two months of trial, and tried to put them at ease. He knows Rwanda well. He went there in August 1994, then spent nearly 15 years defending both accused and victims of the genocide before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and Belgian courts. The Brussels criminal lawyer fired his first arrow: why did authorities wait 16 years before starting proceedings against Séraphin Twahirwa?

A case "prepared" in Rwanda?

In 2007, Twahirwa arrived in Belgium and applied for asylum. The Commissariat Général aux Réfugiés et aux Apatrides (Belgian refugee authority) looked into the case and found there was reason to believe that this man might be suspected of crimes against humanity in Rwanda in 1994. "The international arrest warrant issued by the Rwandan authorities didn't arrive until 2014," said Lurquin. "Then nothing happened for months, and Belgium waited until June 2015 to open an investigation. Why did it take so long to bring Séraphin Twahirwa to trial? It bothers me. I've never seen anything like this in a criminal case! It's completely exceptional and unusual. My theory is our authorities didn't entirely agree with what was going on, otherwise we would have acted as early as 2007," he continued, arguing that the case had been "prepared" for a long time in Rwanda and that Belgium was not initially very inclined to investigate in these circumstances.

"You must bear in mind that politics in Rwanda have evolved since 1994," he warned the jurors. "We are dealing with an authoritarian regime, with a president who has been in power for 23 years. I would like to draw your attention to the possibility of justice being manipulated.”

Testimonies and no written documents

And what about the investigation that began in 2015 with the examining magistrate and Belgian police officers going to Rwanda? Lurquin fired a second arrow. "Who among the witnesses have you heard here? Victims who have brought a civil action against my client, and people who are in prison in Rwanda for having taken part in the genocide," said the lawyer. In his view, the investigating judge only heard witnesses who had already been questioned by the Rwandan police and judicial authorities. "These witnesses were given to us by the Rwandan authorities, and you know that there is what is called a confession procedure over there, which gives the right to reduced sentences." This situation amounts quite simply to a "lynching", he told the court.

"Why are there no confrontations between the witnesses, given that some of them contradict each other about crimes for which they hold Séraphin Twahirwa responsible?” Lurquin asked. "Why are the lawyers not allowed into Rwanda to do their own research? Why isn't the prosecutor producing the gacaca [Rwandan traditional courts] judgments of these detainees who are testifying in our case? We have nothing! How do you expect to be able to challenge certain elements? How are you, as jurors, going to decide who is right between two witnesses who say different things about the same fact of which they accuse my client? Without material evidence, it is virtually impossible to establish a judicial truth. And that's the problem with this case."

Taking the floor after him, his daughter and co-counsellor Juliette Lurquin painted a portrait of her client in a few key dates. His father's departure from the family home, the death of his grandfather who had become a father figure, his car accident that led to amputation of part of his left leg: these were all things that have shaped Twahirwa's personality, she said. The young criminal lawyer then moved on to the rapes of which her client is accused. She pointed out that Twahirwa was not always accurately identified by the women who have been sexually assaulted. "The difficulty with these testimonies is that they are not tangible proof. You have to be careful. You have to be certain of his guilt," she advised jurors.

The Basabosé enigma

Most of the trial testimony focused on Twahirwa. So the second defendant Pierre Basabosé, accused of having financed and armed the militia allegedly led by Twahirwa, has been almost forgotten. This is all the more so as he suffers from senile dementia and did not attend.

His lawyer, Jean Flamme, pointed out that several people stated they knew Basabosé only as a wealthy merchant from Kigali, and that some of them were "unreliable". "One witness said: 'I considered him to be a financier for the Interahamwe'. Yes, but why did he consider him as such? How can he say that? He didn't say it," argued the lawyer, who believes that this type of account does not prove his client's guilt. "The case against Pierre Basabosé is thin, very thin", he said.

Beyond the substance, one question is still up in the air: how can you judge a man who "no longer understands anything", in the words of the prosecutor, and who was not even allowed to express himself during his trial? The presiding judge ruled that the rights of the defence had not been violated, since a lawyer had agreed to represent Basabosé, but was this enough? In his closing argument, Flamme made only a brief reference to the septuagenarian's state of health, but recalled a similar case in which the decision was taken to suspend proceedings: on August 7, the UN Mechanism that took over from the ICTR ordered a stay of proceedings in the case of Félicien Kabuga, who was suffering from the same illness as Basabosé.

This Monday, after the parties have replied and the defendants have had their say, the jury will begin its deliberations. The verdict is expected by the end of the week.

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