Asia and Africa 2004-2005 travel blog



Church Genocide (Not the one in the story)

Kofi Annan

Erik Moses (Norway), Presiding Judge

Prosecutor Jallow (Gambia)

Copyright 2005

David Rich 1700 Words

"Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." [Letter from Lord Acton (John E.E. Dalberg) (1834-1902), English historian, to Mandell Creighton, April 3, 1887, quoted in Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, 1904]

W H Y R W A N D A N G E N O C I D E?

I'd always wondered why the genocide in Rwanda exploded so viciously, resulting in the hot-blooded murders of an estimated million people by their brothers, sisters, cousins and former friends. Then while climbing a few mountains in Eastern Africa I found myself in Arusha, Tanzania, where it's impossible to ignore the prominent signs emblazoned United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. So I dropped by the Tribunal to sate my curiosity.

Anyone can attend the Tribunal by surrendering their passport at the security desk in exchange for a UN badge and personal escort to whichever of three trial courts strikes the fancy, or alternatively to the Tribunal library, Press or information center. However, the sheer volume of information was so intimidating that I skipped the dry stuff and ducked into Courtroom III for the trial against Casimir Bizimungu (and three fellow ministers in the interim government of Rwanda from April 9 through mid-July, 1994). Mr. Bizimungu was a medical doctor who'd served as Minister of Health under Prime Minister Jean Rambanda. Prime Minister Rambanda had already been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, the first head of state ever to be so convicted though far from the first to be guilty of such crimes.

Casimir Bizimungu was repeatedly referred to by his defense counsel as 'General', a general/minister/physician never to be seen because the court is situated so that defendants are hidden behind curtains and the entire court structure is seen through bullet proof glass, from the dozen lawyers representing the defendants on the far left, the three prosecutors on the far right and the three judges robed in brilliant red satin with multiple support staff seated below their lofty perches in the middle.

Judges are elected for four years and eligible for re-election by the General Assembly of the United Nations from a Security Council list submitted by Member States based on representation of the principal legal systems of the world. The judges presiding in Courtroom III hailed from Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Appeals and other judges were from the US, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Fiji, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Guyana, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Zambia, Senegal and Pakistan; an interesting mix.

With all this judicial diversity you'd think it'd be difficult to mesh legal systems for consistency in a particular case. However the judges' mandates are relatively simple based on the two narrow grounds for appeal: only for "an error on a question of law invalidating the decision" or "an error of fact which has occasioned a miscarriage of justice." With such a tight standard, an error so serious as to invalidate the decision or a factual mistake making for a miscarriage of justice, almost anyone could judge a case without fear of reversal. So I jumped in and judged several of the cases for myself.

The testimony and questioning proceeded in French. However, all spectators were provided with earphones providing instant translations into English while a half dozen television monitors honed in on the questioning lawyer or interrupting judge. All witnesses were unseen and anonymous, behind curtains, the same as the defendants. The witness saw Casimir Bizimungu organize the killing of Tutsi refugees sheltering in the Kigali (Rwandan Capitol) Court of Appeals. Mr. Bizimungu had obtained fifty soldiers from a neighboring town and in the early afternoon at 1:30pm ordered them to fire at the defenseless refugees. The witness was one of the soldiers commanded to shoot, and shoot he did based on his confession dated Nov. 14, 2002. The ammunition and guns were provided by the Mr. Bizimungu, who also organized the massacre of Tutsi refugees at the nearby Bora Bora Hotel.

The witness also saw Mr. Bizimungu murder of a watch repairman named Fupi. Based on witness testimony and cross examination by defense counsel I found Mr. Bizimungu guilty as charged. This required almost three hours of tedious testimony and cross examination so I exited Courtroom III to explore the testimony in other cases.

The only woman charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, including the inciting of rape, was Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Rwandan minister of Family and Women's Affairs. The eleven counts brought against her included the direct public incitement to commit genocide and rape, surely a borderline activity for a minister of Family and Women's Affairs. The prosecution called 58 witnesses over a two and a half year period, establishing that Ms. Myiramusuhuko actively urged Hutu civilians to rape and kill Tutsi girls and women. Previously two nuns of the Benedictine Order of Sovu convent in Rwanda were convicted of war crimes by a court in Brussels in June, 2001; they are serving 15 and 12 year terms in jail but no details were readily available.

I read the closing argument by counsel for Mika Muhimana, a former Rwandan government official whose trial for genocide and crimes against humanity concluded on January 20, 2005. The specifics included not only wholesale slaughter of Tutsis but also sexual violence against Tutsi women who'd broken down and cried on the witness stand. Counsel for the defendant said, "We will prove those were crocodile tears. Of all the rape accusations against Mika, none has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. They were crying and lying at the same time." Equating crying with lying is a remarkably creative defense.

Many witness cried during their testimony at the trial of Father Athanase Seromba, the first Catholic priest indicted for genocide before the Rwanda Tribunal. On April 13, 1994 he met with the local government authorities to fine tune the massacre of his flock. Fourteen witnesses described Father Seromba's planning and supervision of a planned arson attack on his own church, the Nyange Church, after the good Father had personally verified that none of the congregation were armed to repulse government invaders. The supplicants were auto de fe'ed by arson of the church with dynamite and gasoline, and then as a final measure, crushed during demolition of the church. Though the Inquitision ended less than a hundred years ago its heyday is centuries past, marking Father Seroma as an extremely late bloomer.

After the fire Father Seromba directed the destruction of the church by bulldozers because, according to one witness, "Father Seromba did not allow us [attackers] to get into the presbytery where the priests were staying until we had got rid of this filth," referring to the corpses strewn inside the church. On Father's orders a bulldozer dug a pit while another shoveled bodies into the new mass grave. The slaughtered had used dust and blankets to try dousing the flames, to no avail. Yet many survived until the church was bulldozed unto their heads. Then all 2000 were dead.

How can you hate a people, or someone labeled Tutsi, Hutu or whatever else, so much that you kill a million of them, which is 30,000 people for each person murdered on the infamous date of 9/11? After days of testimony and scrutiny of previous testimony and decisions I found the conclusion reached by the Tribunal's senior legal adviser, Roland K. G. Amoussouga, and it's an amazingly primeval answer.

In the early 1990s the Rwandan government was threatened with overthrow by the opposition and was sorely afraid it would lose power. In a leap of logic it set out to exterminate opposition Tutsis and moderate Hutus, simply to stay in office. Mr. Amoussounga concluded on Oct. 30, 2003:

"from late 1990 to July 1994, the accused conspired among themselves and with others, to work out a plan with the intent to exterminate the Tutsi population and eliminate members of the opposition, so they could remain in power...[using] recourse to hatred and ethnic violence, the training and distribution of weapons to militiamen as well as preparation of lists of people to be eliminated. In executing their plan, they organized, ordered and participated in the massacres perpetrated against the Tutsi population and moderate Hutus."

Shades of Zimbabwe today, apartheid in South Africa, the genocide in Sudan and the wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and that's just a few in Africa.

I accordingly conclude that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I reached this verdict without, I suggest, either erring on a question of law that could invalidate this conclusion or an error of fact that might occasion a miscarriage of justice.

However, injustice still reigns: On February 11, 2005, 40,0000 people were forced from their homes in the Rwanda, Burundi/Congo area with 52 killed during the month. The Genocide continues unabated today.

For More on The International Criminal Tribunal for RWANDA: See the Court's website at Email to For publications related to the Tribunal email or, and see the UN publications website at

Genocide has been defined by the Tribunal as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

 Killing members of the group

 Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

 Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

 Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

 Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Based on Genocide Convention of 1948)

The Tribunal was established by UN resolution #955 on Nov. 8, 1994 after reports concluded "genocide and other systematic, widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law had been committed in Rwanda." The Tribunal was formed to prosecute those responsible for "genocide and other serious violations of international Humanitarian Law committed in the territory of Rwanda [during calendar year 1994]" and "Rwandan citizens responsible for Genocide and other violations of international law committed in the territory of neighboring States during the same period."

Since its establishment in Arusha in 1995 the Tribunal has arrested over 60 individuals accused of involvement in the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda including the former Prime Minister, members of the interim Government of Rwanda during the Genocide plus senior military leaders and high ranking government officials.

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