An important step on the long road to justice in Rwanda takes place this week with the trial of former Kigali prefect Colonel Tharcisse Renzaho in Tanzania. The 63 year old Renzaho is charged with ordering the April 1994 slaughter of ethnic Tutsis by extremist Hutus at a church, a pastoral centre and an education centre in the capital Kigali. He has denied the charge. Renzaho is represented by two lawyers, François Cantier from France and Barnabé Nekui from Cameroon.
In 1994, Colonel Renzaho was in control of the capital's police force and local officials. The UN war crimes tribunal has alleged that when the killings broke out in April that year, he incited Hutus to kill members of the Tutsi minority. The prosecution also says Renzaho used state radio to instruct the police, army and civilians to man roadblocks so they could identify and intercept Tutsis. His instructions also applied to Hutus who had Tutsi wives. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.
The German-trained Renzaho is a lieutenant-colonel and former professor at the Rwanda Military Academy. Though a minor figure in the Rwandan armed forces, in 1990 he was nominated the Prefect of Kigali following an attack by the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF would eventually do him out of a job when they eventually took control of the country in the wake of the 1994 massacres. After Hutu Power government was destroyed, Renzaho fled to neighbouring Congo, where he worked for President Laurent Kabila, the father of the current president Joseph Kabila. There he collaborated with the exiled Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda who also fled the country in 1994. Renzaho was ranked third on the tribunal’s list of most wanted criminals. He was arrested in 2002 and it has taken over four years for him to come to trial.
The international criminal tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), based in Arusha in neighbouring Tanzania, has often been criticised for operating too slowly. The UN Security Council resolution 955 created the ICTR in November 1994. Its avowed purpose was “to contribute to the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda and to the maintenance of peace in the region”. Its term of engagement was the prosecution of those responsible for crimes in Rwanda for the calendar year 1994.
The Tanzanian site of the tribunal is deliberate. It also where the failed Arusha Accords of 1993 took place. The US and France sponsored the accords in an effort to end the civil war between the Hutu-led Rwandan Government and the Tutsi-led rebel RPF. The accords stripped considerable power from long-term President Habyarimana and created the framework for a transitional coalition government that would include RPF representatives. Habyarimana signed the accords in October 1993 and in the same month the UN sent in a peace force (UNAMIR) to facilitate the implementation of the accords.
But the accords inflamed extremist Hutus who felt that Habyarimana had sold out his people. On the 6 April 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamina crashed as it was about to land in Kigali airport. It was no accident. The plane was shot down by a surface to air missile. No-one knew who shot down the plane, though many had motives. Hutu extremists laid the blame on the rebels. Paul Kagame’s RPF blamed Hutu extremists supported by the French who armed Rwanda to the tune of $25 million between 1990 and 1993.
Who ever did it, and to this day it remains an unsolved crime, the Arusha Accords were in tatters. Within hours a new hardline Hutu administration was in place. They wasted no time in seeking what they saw as revenge for a Tutsi atrocity. Colonel Renzaho quickly marshalled his subordinates to organise patrols and barriers to capture and kill Tutsi. He also maintained links with the Interahamwe militia who obeyed his instructions when he went around the city.
In the first week 20,000 Rwandans were killed, the vast majority of those Tutsi. As the month of April progressed, the killings spread. Renzaho was at the centre of the Kigali killings. He directed the Interahamwe militias to break into houses of prominent Tutsis where the occupants were killed, reportedly in his presence. He dismissed two city councillors opposed to the slaughters. For the next two months he authorised killing and distributed weapons to militias. He fled into exile in June after the RPF victory.
Tharcisse Renzaho lived in exile in several African countries and went into hiding after the tribunal identified him as a suspect. In 1997 he evaded a police trap laid by Kenyan police. But in 2002 he was eventually given up by Congolese President Kabila under pressure from the US. Congo turned him over to the ICTR. He pleaded not guilty in his immediate initial court appearance. In 2005, the prosecutors discovered new material which modified the charges against him. The long slow march to justice culminates with the start of his trial today.