After 20 years of investigations, Paris prosecutors said Wednesday they had asked for the case against a Rwandan Catholic priest accused of genocide to be thrown out. The case of Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka was transferred to France by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Father Munyeshyaka, 57, came to France just after the 1994 genocide and is now ministering in a parish in northwest France. During the Rwandan genocide he was parish priest of Sainte-Famille church in Kigali.
The priest has been under investigation in France since 1995 for genocide. He was convicted in absentia by a Rwandan court in 2006, and has also been indicted by the ICTR. At the end of 2007, the UN Tribunal transferred his case to French judicial authorities, along with that of former Rwandan prefect Laurent Bucyibaruta.
“From our investigations, it appears the role of Wenceslas Munyeshyaka during the 1994 genocide raised a lot of questions,” Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said in a statement.
“But the probe was not able to formally corroborate specific acts pertaining to his active participation” as a perpetrator or an accomplice, he added.
It is now up to magistrates to decide whether to bring the case to court or not.
Munyeshyaka, who was known to walk around armed and wearing a bullet-proof vest, has always protested his innocence and claims he fled Kigali because Hutu militia were after him for “protecting Tutsis”.
Genocide survivors’ organizations have expressed deep disappointment.
“Our first reaction was amazement,” says Alain Gauthier, who heads French association the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR). “Numerous witnesses who escaped from Sainte Famille in Kigali have accused Father Munyeshyaka of actively participating in the genocide against the Tutsis.
Accused of rape
“August 19, 2015 is a very sad day for the survivors of that parish,” said the CPCR. “And there will probably be strong feelings of anger, too.”
Whilst expressing the hope that magistrates will not grant the prosecutors’ request, the CPCR also said that “the decision of the French magistrate is likely to provoke in Rwanda renewed and understandable distrust of French justice”.
Lawyer Jean-Yves Dupeux, who has been defending Munyeshyaka for years, protested his client’s innocence once again. “He did everything he could to shelter 18,000 people in Sainte-Famille during that terrible period and he managed for better or for worse, but rather for better, the food rations, protection and evacuations,” the lawyer told AFP.
According to the indictment of the ICTR, which handed the case over to France, Munyeshyaka participated in planning meetings for massacres and handed Tutsi civilians over to Hutu militia. It also accused him of killing three young Tutsis himself and encouraging or committing rape. The priest has always denied all these allegations.
The parties had been informed at the end of March this year, just days before commemorations of the genocide, that French prosecutors had completed their investigations.
The cases of Munyeshyaka and Bucyibaruta are both being monitored by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT). The MICT is responsible for the residual functions of the ICTR, including monitoring cases transferred to national jurisdictions. According to the last MICT monitoring report, French prosecutors are expected to close their investigations in Bucyibaruta’s case before the end of this year.
France and Rwanda are the only two countries to which the ICTR has transferred cases, as part of its closure strategy.
Kigali has often asked Paris to hand over genocide suspects but France has always rejected these extradition requests, the Court of Cassation (France’s highest court) deeming that genocide was not defined in the Rwandan penal code in 1994.
In the first trial in France linked to the Rwandan genocide, former Rwandan intelligence officer Pascal Simbikangwa was last year sentenced to 25 years in jail for genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity. He has appealed.
The second such trial, involving two former Rwandan mayors, is expected to take place next year.