Rwanda: UN tribunal hands down first war crimes conviction

27 May 2003

The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has handed down its first war crimes conviction, and also announced it had become the first court of its kind to receive a prestigious award for its vital contribution to the cause of human rights.

On Monday, the Tribunal's Appeals Chamber upheld a sentence of life imprisonment against George Rutaganda, a key player in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. At the same time, the court handed down its first conviction for war crimes.

At the time of the massacres, Mr. Rutaganda, 45, was a businessman and political leader in charge of the Interahamwe militia group that largely carried out the killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

He was sentenced by the ICTR on 6 December 1999 after he was found guilty on three counts of genocide, extermination as a crime against humanity and murder as a crime against humanity. Those charges stemmed from his participation in and orchestration of an attack against thousands of people who had sought refuge in a technical college in Kigali, "throwing grenades, shooting and killing the refugees with machetes and cudgels," according to the Tribunal.

Judge Theodor Meron, who presided over the Appeals Chamber, confirmed that the first two convictions had been upheld but that Mr. Rutaganda had been acquitted of murder as a crime against humanity after finding "inconsistencies" in witnesses' evidence.

However, the court entered two new convictions for murder as a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions after ruling that the Trial Chamber had wrongly acquitted Mr. Rutaganda of war crimes relating to the killing of Tutsi refugees, the first time the Tribunal had convicted a defendant of a war crime.

Meanwhile, the ICTR has become the first organization of its kind to receive the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Human Rights Award. The award, which recognizes a significant contribution to human rights, was conferred in acknowledgement of the ICTR's unwavering support for the due process of law, and its contribution to the goal of national reconciliation following the Rwandan genocide.

At the awards ceremony in Berlin last Tuesday, the ICTR President, Judge Navenethem Pillay, stressed that the tribunal "is an important part of a new and desperately needed ray of hope for recognition of international law in the terrain of lawlessness that has plagued our history and threatens to plague our future. The ICTR is the standard bearer of international norms of conduct and must serve with credibility as a neutral adjudicator unbending to political consideration."


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