Arusha, 31 December 2007 (FH) - The just ended year which saw the election of a new president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was marked by only three judgements and intense diplomatic activity for the transfers of accused to national courts.

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Several group trials progressed and are in the defence phase of the cases. Others completed their cases. According to ICTR President Dennis Byron, six judgements are awaited in the first half of next year, at least four before April.

During the past year, two judgements were delivered following guilty pleas, which considerably accelerated the procedures. Joseph Nzabirinda, youth organizer in Ngoma commune, was sentenced on 23 February to 7 years in prison and Juvénal Rugambarara, Governor of Bicumbi commune, handed down 11 years jail.

Only one judgement was the result of a full scale trial. François Karera, former Mayor of Kigali, was sentenced to life in prison on 7 December. He is the eleventh person sentenced by the ICTR to the maximum sentence allowed under the UN statute.

In all, 35 accused have been tried since the establishment of the tribunal in November, 1994 by the UN Security Council. Five were acquitted.

The appeals chamber rendered two judgements. Aloys Simba, Lieutenant Colonel in the Rwandan Army, saw his sentence of 25 years in prison confirmed and three defendants in the media case-media executives, Ferdinand Nahimana(founder of RTLM), Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza(Director of RTLM) and Hassan Ngeze(Editor-in-Chief of Kangura newspaper), saw their sentences slightly reduced after majority of their charges were dismissed.

Under the completion strategy as outlined by the UN, there remains just a year for the ICTR to try its last defendants. Also, diplomatic contacts were made in order to transfer these defendants to other national courts but without much success. Thus, Michel Baragaza, former boss of the state the state-run tea industry regulator who is alleged to have ordered tea agency workers to kill hundreds of Tutsis who were seeking refuge in the factory, who was to be tried in the Netherlands, will have to finally return to Arusha.

Earlier efforts to have him tried in Norway also failed because the Scandinavian country has no genocide laws and can not try somebody accused of that crime.

Two accused-Wenceslas Munyeshyaka (former head of the Sainte-Famille parish in Kigali) and Laurent Bucyibaruta (ex-prefect)-were living in France and whose indictments had remained under seal, were arrested. Their cases have been referred by the ICTR to French authorities.

Another defendant, Augustin Ngirabatware, Rwanda's ex-planning minister in 1994 when an estimated 800,000 people were killed, is the subject of an extradition request in Germany. If transferred to Arusha, he will be added to the six people awaiting trial.

To reduce this list, the prosecutor filed transfer requests to Rwanda.

In 2007, the Prosecutor, Hassan Jallow, requested that five people to be tried in Rwanda-- Jean Baptiste Gatete, former mayor of Murambi, Lieutenant Ildephonse Hategikimana, Commander of Ngoma camp, two businessmen Yussuf Munyakazi and Gaspard Kanyarukiga; and the former police detective Fulgence Kayishema. Only the latter, still at large, is not detained in Arusha.
The transfer requests have yet to be authorized by the ICTR judges.

In spite of the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda, the issue of transfers is facing opposition from human rights groups.

Two organizations for the defence of human rights-- Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, like the International Association of Democratic Lawyers-have expressed doubts on the fairness of possible trials in Kigali.

And this raises a question that just in case that the cases are not transferred to Rwanda, will the tribunal be able to meet its completion strategy of 2008? By the way, it is only Rwanda which has formally requested to try the accused.

The problem of sentenced prisoners is also crucial. Agreements have been signed for several years with five countries to receive ICTR convicts but it still has not succeeded.

With the exception of the six first convicts transferred to Mali in December 2001, no prisoner has found a host country, and none is opening the door down to receive them; except for Rwanda.
The other countries which have offered to host the convicts are: Benin, Swaziland, Italy and France.

The first prisoner to have served his sentenced, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, Pastor of Seventh Day Advesntist Church left prison in December 2006, but died a month later.

The requests for early release were not; compared to the past, receive more positively. At the halfway mark of his sentence, Samuel Imanishimwe, ex top army officer, had requested to benefit from it. Before him, three other convicts had been refused this measure under the pretext of the gravity of their crimes.

In 2008, two convicts should see the end of their sentences: Vincent Rutaganira (ex-councilor), on 2 March, and Joseph Nzabirinda (youth organizer), on 19 December.

Another convict should be released in March after having served a 9-month sentence for false testimony. It is the first judgment of this kind rendered by an international tribunal. GAA, his pseudonym to protect his identity, had admitted to have misled the court and accused an investigator of the tribunal of having incited him.

No indictment was issue during the year against the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers (currently in power in Kigali) alleged of war crimes in 1994.

The Prosecutor Jallow told the UN General Assembly on 10 December that some progress has been made in the investigations against members of the RPF."We look forward to concluding this matter early next year (2008)," he said.

Elected in May, President Byron has undertaken laborious trips to New York to keep informed the anxious UN Security Council and General Assembly on the evolution of the ICTR.

After having solemnly informed that the law had a clean calendar, he evoked an "impressive challenge" before speaking a few weeks ago "of special arrangemens" for the foreseeable delays.

According to United Nations, the tribunal has cost (from 1995 to 2007), 1 032 692 2 USD; without counting the contributions of the European Union intended for additional programs.

The New Year should see the tribunal facing one of its toughest challenges since its establishment.

© Hirondelle News Agency