ARUSHA 13 May 2002 (Internews) Yakov Ostrovsky of Russia, one of the nine judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) recently gave a controversial interview to a Russian newspaper. He maintains his criticism of the tribunal’s prosecutors, saying that they have brought “unprofessional” indictments before the UN court.

Judge Ostrovsky first voiced his criticisms last month in an interview with ‘Vremya MN’ that was later translated from Russian to English by ‘Moscow News.’ In the interview, the judge accused the tribunal of “foot-dragging, wasting money and improper behavior in court.”

The judge also criticized the government of Rwanda, claiming that it has inflated the death toll of the April-June 1994 genocide.

When Russian journalist Oleg Khrabry, who interviewed Ostrovsky, asked him whether the appointment of Carla del Ponte as Chief ICTR Prosecutor has affected the tribunal’s performance, the judge responded that he did not think highly of Del Ponte but was quick to add: “I am not in a position to pass judgment on her qualifications. Without a doubt, she had extensive prosecutorial experience in Switzerland. But I am afraid that the [former Yugoslav leader Slobodan] Milosevic’s case has damaged her authority”.

Del Ponte is prosecuting Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for alleged atrocities committed in the Balkans.

“As far as our cooperation is concerned, the problem is that she has failed to prove her professional credentials. I constantly have to deal with unprofessional indictments. Defendants are frequently charged on several dozen counts, but the subsequent trial typically finds that no crime has been committed in the first place. Moreover, the prosecution often times does not even bother to provide evidence on a number of counts. Judges find it very difficult to support such indictments,” Ostrovsky said in an interview with Internews.

The judge also accused ICTR officials of contributing to the slow pace of trials. “Even tribunal officers are deliberately dragging their feet: After all, the tribunal has provided well- paying jobs for nearly 1000 staffers. Apart from everything else, the tribunal is a costly undertaking. Eight years have passed, but it has produced very little result. People do not remember what happened eight years ago and give conflicting testimony. This is yet another reason why the trials should not continue indefinitely,” Ostrovsky told the Russian newspaper.

Reality on the Ground

Contrary to his criticisms, Judge Ostrovsky himself has often been subject to criticism for his work at the Tribunal, where he has served as judge for seven years. He is currently presiding over the trial for Laurent Semanza, a former mayor of Bicumbi commune in Kigali Rural Province.

The Semanza trial has been in progress since 16 October 2000 and is now nearing completion. The prosecution and the defense are scheduled to make closing arguments in June. Other trials at the tribunal that have taken more than a year include the trial for Georges Rutaganda and the “Media Trial” for Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, Hassan Ngeze and Ferdinand Nahimana (which started in October 2000, although the defense has yet to call their witnesses).

In the Semanza trial, defense attorneys Charles Taku of Cameroon/United States of America and Sadikou Alao of Benin often provoke lengthy arguments that result in long debates that end up consuming judicial time, without significant control from the bench.

The prosecution alleges that Semanza organized and executed massacres of hundreds of people at the Musha and Gikoro communes between 9 and 13 April 1994.

Semanza, 58, who is accused of personally taking part in the killings, has denied 11 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, including rape and persecution.


When contacted for comments on the Ostrovsky interview with the Russian newspaper, Kingsley Moghalu, ICTR Spokesperson, told Internews: “We feel that it is not necessary to comment.”

Regarding his performance in the courtroom, Ostrovsky, who turns 75 this year, at times has to exert himself to make his authority felt, and has twice refused to grant another judge a chance to speak.

In one incident in February 2002, after prolonged debate between the defense and prosecution in the Semanza trial, Judge Lloyd George Williams of St. Kitts and Nevis sought to clarify an issue and tried several times to get Ostrovsky’s permission but the presiding judge curtly told him: “As president of the court I think you should not intervene.”

Ostrovsky, in his interview with the Russian newspaper, did not spare the Rwandan government. He accused the Kigali authorities of overstating the figure of those killed during the genocide, to, as he puts it, “draw attention from its own internal problems.”

The Rwandan government’s preliminary report early this year estimated that the genocide toll is 1,070,017.

“These are but preliminary figures. I do not rule out that they are overstated: After all, the assessment was made by the present Rwandan authorities in order to draw attention from their problems. While the report says that the Tutsi account for 97.3 per cent of the victims, it ignores the fact that the death toll among the Hutu was also fairly high,” Ostrovsky explained.

A representative of the Rwandan government described Ostrovsky’s remarks as unfortunate, especially because they were made by one of the longest-serving judges at the ICTR.

“It is immoral and offensive to the victims, survivors and the government to suggest that anyone makes his fortunes by elevating the number of the dead… Our dead are not trade assets for any purpose; we don’t need to raise the number of those who died in the genocide,” Martin Ngoga, Rwanda’s representative at the ICTR, told Internews.

Ngoga stressed that the government’s figure of approximately one million is a result of special investigations. “He who is challenging the number must equally bring a scientific basis for his position,” he added.

“I said that we do not know if those figures are true,” Ostrovsky told Internews, maintaining that he, in fact, did not accuse the Rwandan government of overstating the number of genocide victims.

Justice for All?

Judge Ostrovsky also told the Russian newspaper that the ICTR is prosecuting only one side of the conflict.

“Although the RPF [Rwanda Patriotic Front] managed to stop mass killings of [ethnic] Tutsi when it came to power, I have to admit that lawyers for the defendants have provided ample evidence to show that a large number of crimes were committed by members of the RPF whose leaders today occupy key positions in the government. The tribunal in effect prosecutes only one side – the Hutu, who constitute the ethnic majority in Rwanda,” Ostrovsky said.

Moreover, Ostrovsky explained, “in one of her public statements, Carla del Ponte said that the prosecution intends also to deal with Tutsi crimes against Hutu… but no such cases have yet been submitted for the court’s consideration. Not surprisingly, Hutu refugees see the international tribunal as a kind of a ‘trial by victors’.”

However, the judge told Internews: “I never said that there was ample evidence that the RPF committed atrocities,” adding that the interview he gave was not translated well, and that his remarks were misrepresented.

‘Diplomatie Judiciare’, a French magazine specializing in international tribunals, has made an English translation of the Ostrovsky interview and found no discrepancy between the Russian and the English version translated by Moscow News.

In his Interview with Internews on Thursday, Ostrovsky reiterated his criticism of the prosecution, terming indictments brought before the tribunal “improper.”

“All indictments have a whole background of Rwanda, which complicates the matter. It should be short and proper… For example, the case of Col. [Theoneste] Bagosora is considered to be the most important case at the ICTR but when the prosecution was asked how many witnesses they intended to call, the prosecutor circulated a paper that he would call 252 witnesses. I personally believe that if while making investigations you find evidence that the suspect is guilty; it is not necessary to call all those witnesses. It takes too much time, you see? That is not an expeditious trial and it is the problem with the prosecution,” Ostrovsky maintained.

ICTR sources speculate that Ostrovsky made his comments on the Bagosora trial after being dropped from the trial. Bagosora and three others are jointly tried in the so-called “Military Trial.” The prosecution has alleged that Bagosora was the mastermind of the 1994 genocide.

But Judge Ostrovsky denies that his remarks are connected to his not being one of the judges in the Military Trial. “That is not true, that I was dropped from the case. It is just that my mandate ends in May 2003,” the judge told Internews.

Judge Ostrovsky, who graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1950 and from the Hague Academy of International Law in 1957, did not practice as a lawyer or judge in court before joining the ICTR.

He was a professor of International law at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. He was appointed Chief of Social and Legal Problems Desk in the former United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) permanent mission to the United Nations between 1960 and 1966. Before joining the ICTR, Ostrovsky served as legal advisor to Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the rank of Ambassador at Large since 1978.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here