Arusha, December 10, 2001 (FH) - The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has, since it started operating in 1997, afforded identity protection measures to most of its witnesses. However, in the past week the Rwandan government, genocide survivors and the ICTR Prosecutor have expressed concern that the Tribunal may not be protecting witnesses enough, or in the right way.

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Genocide survivors' and women's groups in Rwanda are up in arms over reports that ICTR judges laughed during a hearing involving a rape testimony by a young Rwandan woman, dubbed "TA" to shield her identity. Last Thursday another prosecution witness, former Radio Rwanda journalist Agnès Murebwayire, stormed out of court in protest at her treatment by defence lawyers. Murebwayire, who testified openly, felt she was being insulted by defence suggestions that she had lied during her testimony. She finally agreed to return to court, but only after being reassured and given time to calm down. These two incidents have raised concern particularly about the way witnesses are treated in court. "I am coming in court when I am here," ICTR Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told a press conference in Arusha on Thursday, "and my surprise is that each kind of question is allowed. I am coming from a civil law system and I know that in a common law system it is different, but I am asking my senior trial attorneys from common law if it's normal, if it's useful to aggress in such a way a witness, and I must say I receive the answer no. "Del Ponte said she thought the October 31st incident when Trial Chamber Two judges laughed during TA's testimony was "scandalous", and that she was surprised by the passivity of the presiding judge. However, she clearly feels that prosecution should also be doing more to stop such incidents occurring. "It is important that the prosecutor in court can try to protect him (the witness) from an aggression," she said. Del Ponte told journalists that she was organizing an advocacy course over the weekend (just ended) for all ICTR trial attorneys, "and the main point," she said, " is the cross-interrogation, is the attitude during the examination of a witness. And I hope that it will be useful. "Speaking after Murebwayire stormed out of court on Thursday, British lawyer Diana Ellis argued that prosecution interruptions of her cross-examination had been "inappropriate" and had upset the witness further. She said defence believed that some witnesses did come to Arusha to lie, and that lawyers for the accused must be allowed to challenge their testimonies. She said it was up to the judges to stop the line of questioning if it was inappropriate. "Witnesses are dying"Speaking to journalists last Monday, Rwanda's representative to the ICTR Martin Ngoga said his government was "associating itself with public concern" over the October 31st incident during TA's testimony. He said Rwanda would make use of public records (video and audio recordings and transcripts) to "see what happened". In a strong message, Ngoga appealed for the ICTR to completely rethink its witness protection priorities, so as to help those who are dying of AIDS. "Our understanding is that Rule 34 (of ICTR Rules of Procedure and Evidence), which is all about witness protection, has not been fully implemented," he told journalists. "And the less important part of it is the one that has been given priority. To me, if you ask me the system I would prefer, I don't think it is very important for the witnesses to testify in closed session. In Rwanda, we have been conducting these cases in public and we do not have cases of witnesses being killed. "Many women and girls were raped during the genocide, says Ngoga, and many of them were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He says more and more of them are now contracting and dying of AIDS, so unless the ICTR speeds up trials and helps these witnesses, they will not live to testify. "Ironically the Accused who are HIV positive are being assisted to meet this medication," Ngoga told journalists. "We have convictions of rape in the ICTR… so it doesn't seem clear to us how you can meet the medication of a suspected or convicted rapist, or how you can proceed to prosecute and charge one with rape, and ignore the fact that this rapist's victim is likely to be HIV-positive as well. So in the trials that you have here that go on for years, if you leave these witnesses to die, you are killing evidence. And as I say, these witnesses are now dying in big numbers. "Ngoga says that the ICTR has registered such cases, and that it should release figures to show the scale of the problem. He says the Rwandan government has a global policy to help HIV and AIDS victims in the country, but does not have a specific policy for ICTR witnesses or potential witnesses. "So I think," he continues, "that the most important part of protection is the one that makes sure these witnesses can live, up to the time when they come here and testify, other than attend to them when they are here for one or two days, then abandon them. If you ask the authorities here the whereabouts of the two witnesses who collapsed in court, they may not be in a position to tell you even where they are. Yet the Rule (34) talks about long- and short-term measures to protect witnesses. (…) We are not saying that the witness protection system that is obtaining now is not necessary,but we are saying it is not as important as that area that is not being attended to. "JC/DO/FH (WI1210e)