Arusha, October 10, 2013 (FH) –  Ever since being transferred to Rwanda in July by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), former militiaman Bernard Munyagishari has been fighting to have his genocide trial conducted in French, rather than the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda. He is on the same quest where another transferred Rwandan suspect, Léon Mugesera, failed last year.

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Mugesera, a linguist and former Rwandan politician, argued before the Rwandan courts that he no longer mastered Kinyarwanda, especially judicial language. He was extradited in January 2012 from Canada, where he had been living for nearly 20 years. “In the legal and scientific field there are terms that I do not know,” he told a judge in a first hearing on February 2, 2012. When the lower court rejected his request to have the trial in French, Mugesera appealed. The appeal was thrown out. Nevertheless, Mugesera often expresses himself before the High Court in Kigali in a mixture of French and Kinyarwanda, while the prosecutor sometimes uses a mixture of English and Kinyarwanda.

“His speech must be kept in Kinyarwanda”

Mugesera, who had been wanted by the Rwandan judicial authorities since 1995, is indicted notably for incitement to commit genocide. The charge relates to a speech he made in November 1992 at a meeting of the MRND political party, the former ruling party to which he belonged. The prosecution sees Mugesera’s wish to be tried in a foreign language as a strategic move. “In that speech in Kinyarwanda there are expressions and insinuations that get lost if it is translated into another language,” Martin Ngoga,  Rwanda’s Prosecutor General at the time, told Hirondelle News Agency in May. “His speech must be kept in Kinyarwanda.” Prosecutors and numerous experts consider Mugesera’s 1992 speech as a call to commit the anti-Tutsi genocide. At the time, Mugesera was teaching linguistics at the National University of Rwanda and was vice-president of the MRND for the northern prefecture of Gisenyi, the birthplace and stronghold of assassinated former president Juvénal Habyarimana.

As for Munyagishari, he was at that time secretary general of the MRND for the commune of Rubavu, in Gisenyi prefecture, and head of the party’s youth wing, the notorious Interahamwe militia, for the whole prefecture. He is accused of genocide for allegedly training and arming the Interahamwe, preparing and directing their deadly attacks in Gisenyi. Munyagishari was also a primary school teacher and national football referee in Rwanda.

"I don’t understand Kinyarwanda"

Munyagishari set the tone as soon as he was handed over to the Rwandan authorities on the evening of July 24, 2013, at Kigali international airport. “I don’t understand what you are saying. I don’t understand Kinyarwanda,” he told the first Rwandan officials to question him. At his first appearance before a Rwandan judge on August 4, he again claimed he did not understand Kinyarwanda. He also said he was neither Hutu nor Tutsi but a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and says he wants a DRC consular visit.

“Munyagishari understands Kinyarwanda. He was born in Rwanda, studied in Rwanda, worked in Rwanda, even testified before a Rwandan court in Kinyarwanda,” countered prosecutor Ndibwami Rugambwa. The prosecutor produced a 1982 judgment by the Appeals Court of Ruhengeri (northern Rwanda) where Munyagishari, who was accused of rape, defended himself in the Rwandan language. After hearing the prosecutor’s arguments, the court decided that Munyagishari should be tried in Kinyarwanda, which is an official national language in Rwanda along with French and English. 

In subsequent hearings, Munyagishari’s lawyers asked that Munyagishari should have an  interpreter if his trial is to take place in Kinyarwanda. The court threw this out but the lawyers appealed, saying they had not had a chance to present their arguments to the court. The appeal is still pending, and no date has yet been set for the start of trial.