The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in March sentenced Vincent Rutaganira, the former councillor of Mubuga sector to 6 years in prison for failing to stop the massacres that took place at the Mubuga Catholic Church.
Rutaganira pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting extermination through his failure to act to stop the killings. Rutaganira admitted that by failing to do so, he encouraged the perpetrators. He is the fourth person from sixty-two detainees at the ICTR, to admit guilt in the Rwandan genocide. The first to have entered the guilty plea was former Rwandan Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda.
The senior trial attorney in the case, Charles Adeogun Phillips said that the guilt plea “will assist in the administration of justice as well as in the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda.”
“We feel that by pleading guilty Mr. Rutaganira should be seen as setting an example that may encourage others like him to acknowledge their personal involvement in the massacres that occurred in Rwanda in 1994,” Phillips told the court.
Today, the parish church in Mubuga is a tranquil place. The church has been repaired and the sound of choir practice greets you as you enter. However, just outside the church, there are many gravestones, marking the remains of hundreds of Tutsis killed in April 1994. Jean Damascene Gakwerere is a primary school teacher; he and his neighbour lived next to the church.
“Oh! So many people died here! Most of them were colleagues, friends, and neighbours , Gakwerere remembers. His neighbour agrees. ” Many people sought refuge in the neighbouring area, many were killed in this church by the gendarmes and armed attackers,” he recalls.
The Court at the ICTR heard that from 10 th April 1994 , soldiers and gendarmes sent by Prefect Clement Kayishema stood guard around the church, allegedly to protect those hiding inside. According to the prosecution, the same soldiers and gendarmes, together with local Mayor Charles Sikubwabo, later launched the attack that killed thousands.
John Munyangabe is a prisoner awaiting trial in Rwanda . He says he was one of the militia who took part in the attack. ” About nine in the morning, the paramilitary police got us and told us to go to the church; Vincent was there, the mayor was there, they led the attacks,” Munyangabe says. The gendarmes then began shelling the church. The things that were done afterwards were simply terrible,” he recalls.
The ICTR indicted seven of the officials allegedly present at the massacre. They include Prefect Kayishema, who was tried and sentenced to life and Mayor Sikubwabo, who is still at large. Vincent Rutaganira, the councillor of Mubuga was also on the list. Although he was a junior official, the prosecution argued that he could have tried to stop the slaughter.
“Despite his position as councilor of Mubuga sector Mr. Rutaganira took no active steps to protect the Tutsi refugees who had sought refuge inside the Mubuga church and instead literally stood aside and watched his fellow country men and women as they were slaughtered at the Mubuga Parish church on the 15th of April 1994,” Charles Phillips told the court. However, in mitigation, the prosecution noted that Rutaganira has shown remorse for what happened at Mubuga, and has assisted the Tribunal.
“It has to be said that Vincent Rutaganira surrendered voluntarily to the Tribunal on 18 February 2002. This is in itself unique because there are only two accused persons that have ever surrendered voluntarily to the custody of the Tribunal in the ten years since its establishment,” Phillips pointed out.
After Rutaganira pleaded guilty, Prosecution lawyers asked the Court to dismiss all other charges against him, saying they have not found any evidence that he had either helped to plan, or had personally participated in, the killings at the Church. In Court, Rutaganira went one step further and asked forgiveness.
“I am still profoundly hurt by what has happened and I would like to ask pardon from the victims and the Tribunal,” Rutaganira told the court.
So what do the residents of Mubuga think of the Rutaganira’s guilty plea? ” Anyone who does not accept responsibility for their crimes is a difficult person. To deny what you did, is very bad. Those who refuse to take responsibility are extremists, but someone who confesses shows the intention of never repeating it again,” Jean Damascene Gakwerere reckons.
John Munyangabe is less optimistic. In his eyes, by failing to do anything at the parish Church in Mubuga, Vincent Rutaganira participated in the crime. ” Has he really accepted that he had a role in the killings? It seems to us that in his plea, he is asking survivors for forgiveness, because he did nothing to stop the killings. This is not what he should have said. He should have said ‘I too led the killers.”
When Rutaganira pleaded guilty, the Prosecutor and Defense agreed on what they consider an appropriate sentence for the former councilor, which they have urged the judges to consider.
“The Prosecutor, in agreement with the defense, hereby recommends a term of imprisonment of between 6-8 years with credit given to Mr. Rutaganira for the period already served on remand. The prosecutor further recommends that Mr. Rutaganira be allowed to serve his sentence in a prison facility either in Europe or in the Kingdom of Swaziland,” Charles Phillips told the court.
In Rwanda, there are those who felt that this is too lenient.
“That only happened because he is under International law. Otherwise, I do not understand it. He asks for 6 years, while we have been in prison for 10 years. This is very hard for us to accept. But what can we do? He made his plea and asked for that sentence. We don’t think it’s fair to us,” Munyangabe complains.
Another prisoner in Rwanda , Laurent Musyimyimana agrees. ” We think that sentence is too low. His plea sounds very superficial, it lacks detail. If his plea was genuine, maybe he could get a fair sentence. But we should also get fair sentences, because it was people like him who manipulated us.”
However, Presiding Judge Andresia Vaz had only positive words for Rutaganira. ” We wish to commend you for the courage that you have shown in choosing to decide to surrender yourself to the Tribunal and to plead guilty. We wish to reassure you because we do hope that others will follow your choice,” Judge Vas told Rutaganira.