Arusha, 26 May 2008 (FH) - The defence counsels in the trial of four former top Rwandan army officers, known as Military II, Monday called for an independent inquiry into the mysterious disappearance of a protected witness from a safe house in Arusha early this month and his whereabouts are still unknown.

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The defense counsels were concerned over the laxity of the tribunal and time already lapsed in tracking down the witness, code-named "GFA", who claimed before the court of having presented false testimony. The witness who has also appeared in several other trials, under the code-name" BTH ", had also raised a number of allegations in connection with other testimonies of other prosecution witnesses, claiming that he and others had given false evidence as a result of pressure exerted on them by the Rwandan government so that they can be released from prison in Rwanda.

The witness vanished on 6 April, just some few hours before he was to re-testify in the court over his remarks. The safe house where he was living was protected by the UN security and Tanzanian police.

The counsels expressed their anguish following their dissatisfaction over the preliminary report presented by the Registry on the circumstances leading to the disappearance of the witness.

The defense counsels went to the extend of dubbing the "safe houses as are no longer safe."

The defendants in the trial who are facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) are two former Chiefs of Staff, Generals Augustin Bizimungu and Augustin Ndindiliyimana in charge of the army and the gendarmerie respectively in 1994, and two former officers of the reconnaissance battalion, Major Francois-Xavier Nzuwonemeye and Captain Innocent Sagahutu. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Speaking in turns at the resumption of Military II trial, the defense counsels wondered how the witness could disappear from the safe house, which was under the tight security surveillance.

"How safe is the safe house?" queried Charles Taku, lead counsel for the one of accused Nzuwonemeye. He also asked the Chamber on how that would impact other witnesses expected to testify in different trials.

Fabien Segatwa, lead counsel for Captain Sagahutu mentioned about five people who were either connected with trials or were witnesses who disappeared or were killed in mysterious circumstances, causing an alarm to the security of such important people in search for justice. "The safe house is no longer secured," he told the Trial Chamber, Presided over by Judge, Joseph Asoka de Silva from Sri Lanka.

Among those he referred mysteriously killed, included the former Rwandan Minister for Interior, Seth Sendashonga, who was shot-dead in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998 just as he was to come to testify in a trial at the Arusha-based ICTR. He had earlier survived an earlier assassination attempt in 1996, when he and his nephew were both injured after being shot in Nairobi by people the deceased had identified as Rwandese.

The other was former Rwandan Minister Juvenal Uwingiliyimana who was killed in Belgium after a meeting with ICTR prosecution team. Uwingiliyimana's naked body was found in the Charleroi canal in Brussels on December 17, 2005. He went missing on November 21 when he was scheduled to meet tribunal investigators.

"I would rather leave my witnesses under the care of the almighty God than in the hands of the safe houses," lamented Segatwa.

Reacting on the defence complaints, the prosecution Attorney, Van Alphonce, said the defence submissions were pre-mature as investigations were still on going, saying what they have received was just a preliminary report from the Registry, the fact which was also supported by the Chamber.

The Chamber then resumed the defence case of General Ndindiliyimana, which was adjourned on 6 March, 2008.


© Hirondelle News Agency