Kigali, March 18, 2010 (FH) - An opponent to Rwanda's current regime, Joseph Ntawangundi , pleaded not guilty on Thursday when  he appeared for his re-trial before a semi-traditional Gacaca court in Eastern Rwanda.

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Ntawangundi works as an assistant for Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, the President of the United Democratic Forces (UDF), who intends to run for her party in the presidential election scheduled for August.

Mrs Ingabire and Mr Ntawangundi both returned from exile in January to register their political party, created in exile. They have not succeeded yet in doing so.

The defendant's file states that he was the Principal of the Agro-veterinary school of Gitwe (Eastern province) at the time of the genocide and that he organized massacres of Tutsis in its own institution.

Ntawangundi explained on Wednesday that he never was the head of that school. He added that he was in Sweden during the genocide.

However, around 20 witnesses testified having seen the accused when the massacres took place. Amongst them, one presented himself as a former student, one said she was Ntawangundi' s servant and another one asserted she was his former partner.

The Gacaca court of Gitwe concluded after the hearings that he must have been there and postponed the trial to March 24.

Now detained in Kibungo's Central prison, Joseph Ntawangundi was arrested in February on the grounds of a judgment delivered in 2007 by a Gitwe Gacaca court (Eastern province).  The tribunal sentenced him in to 19 years in jail for complicity in the 1994 genocide. He was allowed to ask for a rehearing trial as he had been judged in absentia.

In a press release posted on February 8  on the UDF website, Ingabire claimed that her assistant was not present in Rwanda during the genocide.

The website read: "Joseph Ntawangundi left Rwanda in 1986 for studies in Poland (Wroclaw), returned to Rwanda in 1992 and worked in Kigali (CESTRAL). In 1993, he left Rwanda for ICFTU - AFRO (International Confederation for Free Trade Unions, African Regional Organization, NAIROBI, Kenya) as a Research and Training Officer until 2002.  During the genocide, Mr. Joseph Ntawangundi was attending, on behalf of the ICFTU - AFRO, a 2-month training course in Sweden (GANGNEF) and returned to Kenya".

 The Gacaca courts, adapted from a form of Rwandan traditional justice, are tasked with trying suspected perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide which left some 800,000 people dead, according to the UN. 

 These village courts, whose judges are elected from the community, can hand down sentences up to life imprisonment, which is now the maximum penalty in Rwanda. They have so far tried more than a million people.


© Hirondelle News Agency