Brussels, November 06, 2009 (FH) - Former Interahamwe militia leader Ephrem Nkezabera is unlikely to appear at his trial opening Monday in Brussels because he is sick, according to his lawyer.

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"My client suffers from an incurable condition the treatment of which is so incapacitating that he will be unable to follow court procedures," defence counsel Gilles Vanderbeck told the Hirondelle News Agency.

Vanderbeck said he had filed for the trial to be deferred on medical grounds. "The Court will rule on the merits of my plea," he added. "If the latter is rejected, the case will proceed most likely in the absence of my client." Vanderbeck said he would regret this "as much my client".

After four years in jail, Ephrem Nkezabera was released from preventive detention on  August 27, 2008 to undergo medical treatment.

"The matter will be settled Monday morning," the Registrar confirmed. "Nkezabera's counsel will provide more precise information and the Court will rule on whether the trial can proceed in the defendant's absence or, perhaps, with him being present from time to time."

The Federal Prosecution wants the procedure to go ahead on account of its importance for the alleged victims.

The civil parties are also awaiting the start of trial to clarify their position. "We would prefer a trial under normal conditions in the presence of all parties involved," explained Philippe Lardinois, a counsel for the alleged victims. "But if the defendant suffers from a severe condition, that  won't be possible."

Ephrem Nkezabera, 56, is accused of war crimes committed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda - murders, attempted murders and rapes. This is the first time that rape has been charged as a war crime in Belgium.  

In 1994, Nkezabera chaired the economic and finance body of the National Committee of the the Interahamwe, the main militia that spearheaded the genocide. He was also a member of the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), the party of President Juvénal Habyarimana.

Nkezabera was arrested in Brussels in 2004, following an agreement with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). He is known to have been an informer of the UN tribunal, together with other former Interahamwe leaders.

He also testified in previous trials in Belgium related to the Rwanda genocide in 2005 and 2007, providing evidence about financing channels for the genocide. Absence from his own trial would remove the possibility for him to expand on this evidence, which he has appeared inclined to do.

Nkezabera has admitted to most of the charges brought against him. During the judicial investigation, he admitted to having armed and financed the Interahamwe in order to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He also admitted that during a public meeting in 1993 he had "encouraged" Interahamwe to carry out massacres. Lastly, he admitted contributing to financing of the notorious RTLM radio station which was created the same year and which openly called for killings on its airwaves.

However, the accused rejected the rape charges, alleging "consenting partners". Defence counsels for the civil parties dispute this claim, arguing that the alleged victims had no choice but to give in or be killed.

Eighteen alleged victims have been constituted as civil parties; civil parties must come forward before the start of trial. For them, the absence of the accused would be another blow. They are already very disappointed that judges threw out a genocide charge.

Belgium is one of the rare European countries to have concluded trials related to the Rwandan genocide, under a 1993 law revised in 2003 which applies the principle of "universal jurisdiction". The trial of Ephrem Nkezabera is expected to last approximately one month.


© Hirondelle News Agency