Arusha, February 8, 2002 (FH) - A Rwandan priest who surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) pleaded not guilty on Friday to four genocide related charges. Father Athanase Seromba is charged with genocide or, in the alternative, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity.

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The bespectacled priest, dressed in a dark suit and a prelate's collar, appeared calm as he made his plea. At the time of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Father Seromba was priest of the Catholic parish of Nyange (Kibuye province in western Rwanda). The prosecution charges him with responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Tutsis who took refuge in his parish. According to his indictment, he ordered the church to be bulldozed, crushing to death some 2,000 Tutsis. The prosecution says he conspired with local dignitaries, including former Kivumu mayor Grégoire Ndahimana, to commit his crimes. He is charged with crimes committed between April 6th and 20th, 1994. Father Seromba fled Rwanda in 1994, and has been living since 1997 in Italy. ICTR Prosecutor Carla del Ponte tried to get him arrested there on July 12, 2001, but Italy did not cooperate. Rome argued that it must first change its laws to permit the arrest. On Wednesday the priest traveled to Tanzania, surrendered to the ICTR and was immediately placed in detention. A statement from the Italian Diocese of Florence said he wanted to shed light on the accusations against him and to prove his innocence. During his initial appearance, Judge Navanethem Pillay of South Africa asked him to confirm that he had surrendered himself to the ICTR. "Yes yes," he replied in French, but did not elaborate. Seromba was represented by a Tanzanian duty counsel. However, he informed the court that he already had a lawyer of his choice who was not able to be present for the hearing. Seromba is the fourth clergyman to appear before the ICTR. The others are Bishop Samuel Musabyimana (Anglican), Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana (Seventh Day Adventist) and Father Emmanuel Rukundo (Catholic). They have all pleaded not guilty. SW/JC/FH (SB-0208e)