Kibuye, November 5th, '99 (FH) - The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has expressed satisfaction with its first judicial visit to Rwanda. Rwandans who spoke to Hirondelle press agency also saw it as a positive move, but criticized the court's decision not to visit a genocide memorial site.

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Judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers working on the genocide trial of former Rwandan mayor Ignace Bagilishema on Thursday ended a four-day visit to sites in the Kibuye prefecture of western Rwanda where the accused is alleged to have committed crimes. Bagilishema, whose trial began on October 27th in Arusha, Tanzania, is accused of playing a leading role in the massacre of ethnic Tutsis who fled to the Kibuye region during the genocide that took place from April to July 1994. "The Trial Chamber feels it has gained an important degree of additional understanding of the case and of the context in which the evidence will be set,"ICTR Chief Press and Information Officer Tom Kennedy told journalists in Kibuye. "The prosecution and defence lawyers both also expressed satisfaction at the way the visit had run. "The visit came at the request of Bagilishema's French defence counsel François Roux, who was paying his second working visit to Rwanda. "We can say that things went well," Roux told Hirondelle. "I think everyone is conscious of the importance of this visit, both in relation to the case and also as a precedent for future cases. "Nigerian prosecutor Charles Philips expressed general satisfaction with the running of the visit but said the timing could have been better. "With hindsight, it would have been better to undertake this after the evidence had been heard," he told Hirondelle. "Judges often indicated at the various sitesthe desire that someone from the prosecution talk them through. That is difficult, because that is what our witnesses will be giving evidence on. The best case would be to bring the witness to describe what happened. "He said this was especially the case as the prosecution had not been allowed to bring its investigators. "We offered to bring them," he told Hirondelle, "but the defence objected and the court upheld the objection. "Breaking new groundThis is the first time that an international criminal tribunal has visited places where the events involved took place, although site visits are a well-known feature of many national jurisdictions, including in Rwanda. "It seemed to the defence that a case of such importance [. . . ] required that everyone have as good a knowledge as possible of the terrain and of the situation in Rwanda," said defence lawyer Roux. "That is why in August, as soon as we knew that the trial was starting in October, I asked the tribunal toexamine the possibility that it go to Rwanda. " The request received a positive response from both the prosecution and the court. The Tribunal rejected a motion by former Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu's defence calling for such a visit. "At the time," prosecutor Philips told Hirondelle, "the public relations aspect of the Tribunal was at an all-time low and the security situation in Kigali was bad, so the Chamber was probably advised against it. Now the relationship between the Tribunal and the Rwandan government has improved, and that coincides with a change of leadership in the Tribunal," he continued. "The new wave of judges is seen as dynamic and forward-looking and has made no secret of the fact that they want this kind of visit. "Judges Eric Mose of Norway (presiding), Asoka de Zoysa Gunawardena of Sri Lanka and Mehmet Guney of Turkey, accompanied by both parties, visited sites in Mabanza, Gitesi, Gishyita and Gisovu communes linked to massacre allegations against Bagilshema. Bagilishema was mayor of Mabanza from February 1980 to July 1994. According to the prosecution, some 20,000 people were massacred in and around Mabanza during the genocide. The visit included the commune office premises in Mabanza, where Bagilishema allegedly encouraged thousands of Tutsi refugees to gather before sending them to strategic sites where they were killed. These premises contain a mass grave, allegedly dug by Interahamwe militiamen on Bagilishema's orders, and the commune office jailhouse, where he is said to have detained over 100 Tutsi refugees. Today the tiny, windowless jailhouse is crammed with genocide suspects. The court also went to the Gatwaro Stadium in Kibuye, where some 10,000 refugees were first deprived of food and water, then brutally killed by soldiers and militiamen in mid-April 1994. According to the prosecution, the slaughter was directed by the prefect of Kibuye, Clément Kayishema, and Bagilishema. The ICTR sentenced Kayishema to life imprisonment on May 25th this year. "Strictly judicial"Judges were taken to witness homes and mass graves, and to sites in the mountains of Bisesero, where Tutsis tried to resist Interahamwe attacks. However, the court chose to pass by the Bisesero genocide memorial, where thousands of skulls and bones of genocide victims are displayed. This decision was taken on the grounds that the visit was strictly judicial, that the memorial was not directly linked to the Bagilishema case, and that it could prejudice his right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. A group of survivors guarding the memorial said it was a good thing that the judges were "coming to see with their own eyes". However, they failed to understand why the court did not visit the memorial. "What are they coming here for if they are not going to see the bones and skulls?" asked Simon Ngaminje, who lost 20 members of his family in the genocide. "It is as if they had stayed in Arusha and listened to witness testimonies. "Other Rwandans, including journalists and officials, expressed similar sentiments. "I didn't realize that they went to Bisesero for any other reason than to visit the memorial," said current mayor of Mabanza Mathias Abimana, who is also a survivor. "Judges are also human beings. And I think it would havebeen better if they had been able to experience the emotional significance of the situation. "Abimana nevertheless said he thought the visit was a "very good thing" and that it should serve the interests of justice and reconciliation. Kibuye State prosecutor Aristide Nkonji said the visit would make ICTR decisions more credible because the court had been on the ground. He said he hoped it signalled a willingness to step up international arrests of Rwandan genocide suspects, and also to cooperate with the Rwandan judicial authorities. JC/PHD/FH (BS§1106e)