Arusha, January 22, 2015 (FH) – The most complicated trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is not finished. Although the Tribunal was due to close its doors at the end of 2014, the UN Security Council in December had to renew the mandate of certain judges to complete the longest trial in the history of international justice, which includes the only woman indicted by the ICTR, as well as five others.

2 min 53Approximate reading time

This trial, which includes ex-minister Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, is unlikely to be finished before the second half of this year, according to ICTR forecasts.

As well as its length, this trial also has other particularities that make it unique in the history of international justice.  Nyiramasuhuko is not just only the only woman indicted by the ICTR but also by an international criminal court, and the allegations against her include rape.

She became a member of the former Rwandan government after belated university studies, and is on trial with her son, Arsène Shalom Ntahobali, among others. Now a grandmother, this Christian woman who is never seen without her rosary was sentenced to life in prison by the trial court for acts including rape committed at her command. And according to the trial court judgment, one of those who raped Tutsi women and girls was none other than her son, Shalom, at the time a young, newly married university student.

According to the trial court judges, the former minister “conspired with other members of the interim government to commit genocide in Butare (southern Rwanda)”.  They said she exercised command authority over Interahamwe militia who committed rape in the offices of the Butare prefect.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and her Canadian lawyer Nicole Bergevin have always claimed she was victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the current Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

“It’s an abomination to claim that Pauline Nyiramasuhuko went so far as to order her son to rape young Tutsi women,” said Bergevin in her final arguments in April 2009.

Nyiramasuhuko expressed the same sentiment when she addressed the court in her own defence in September 2005. “How can you imagine that a woman like me would do such things?” she said.

But her words did not convince the trial judges, and she is now awaiting her appeals hearing, for which the date is yet to be set.

Conflict of interestsAnother particularity of this trial is its complexity, due notably to the number of accused persons: six in total. It is the biggest joint trial in the history of the ICTR, which had to abandon its initial plan for a mega-trial. Nyiramasuhuko and the other people tried with her are all from the Butare prefecture in southern Rwanda. Thus it has been dubbed the “Butare trial”. Two of the other five accused, former Butare prefect Sylvain Nsabimana and former mayor Joseph Kanyabashi, were members of the Social Democrat Party (PSD), a small party in opposition to the former single party MRND, to which Nyiramasuhuko and her family remained loyal. In their defence, Nsabimana and Kanyabashi tried to convince the judges that only the MRND could have incited the massacres in Butare.  But Nyiramasuhuko and her son responded that although the MRND was popular in other regions of Rwanda, notably the north, it had little support in the south, especially the university town of Butare.

This conflict of interest between the accused was often visible during the hearings, with heated exchanges between the lawyers, to the grand satisfaction of the prosecution.

This trial will also go down in history as the longest and no doubt the costliest in the history of international justice. Started in June 2001, the hearings were especially long, because of difficulties with the witnesses and the slowness of questioning, which Tanzanian presiding judge William Hussein Sekule had difficulty cutting short. Many expert witnesses also appeared in the case, many of whom remained for months in the witness box. Not forgetting the onerous work of translation. For example, the trial court judgment was handed down in English on June 24, 2011, but the French version was only distributed to the six convicts in 2013. Yet they could not exercise their right to appeal without having read the judgment in a language they understand.

According to Danish judge Vagn Joensen, president of the ICTR,  the deadline for filing appeals ended in October 2013 and the appeals hearing is expected in March, whereas the final appeals judgment is not expected until at least August. The trial will thus have lasted more than 14 years and Shalom’s mother, now 69, will have spent 16 years in preventive detention.