For 10 years after his acquittal for alleged genocide crimes, the former Rwandan foreign minister Jerome Bicamumpaka pleaded for permission to be reunited with his wife and children in Montreal.
Canadian officials ignored every request – until three months ago, when he died of cancer at the age of 64, stateless and exiled in East Africa. Then at last they relented: They allowed his body to be flown to Canada, in a coffin.
Mr. Bicamumpaka is today buried in a cemetery in Montreal’s east end, where his family visits his grave. Embittered by Ottawa’s treatment of him in his final years, they are asking awkward questions about Canada’s role in an international justice system that kept him in a surreal state of statelessness for decades.
“They refused to respond to us – they ghosted us,” said Mr. Bicamumpaka’s son, Cédric. “It’s unfair. When he was alive, they didn’t want him on their territory. But when he died, it was acceptable.”
Since 1994, Canada has pumped an extraordinary amount of money into the international courts for Rwandan genocide crimes. In total, Canada has transferred almost $90-million to support the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and its successor agency, according to James Wanki, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
Despite its heavy financial investment in the tribunal, however, Ottawa seems unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of its verdicts by allowing family reunification after acquittals, Mr. Bicamumpaka’s lawyer and family say.
The United Nations tribunal has convicted 61 people for crimes relating to the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were killed. But when defendants are acquitted, or released after completing their sentences, most governments – including Canada’s – have preferred to leave them in a state of indefinite limbo, without passports or travel documents, often under house arrest or with severe restrictions on their movement.
For the past eight months, four acquitted Rwandans and four released Rwandans have been confined to a house in Niamey, the sweltering capital of the West African country of Niger. With armed police watching the house around the clock, they cannot leave for fear of arrest. They are only permitted to go out for emergency hospital treatment, but even the ambulance is watched by police. The uncertainty and restrictions have left them increasingly depressed and anxious, their lawyers say.
Their house arrest is a violation of an international agreement signed by Niger and the UN last November. Niger pledged to give official residency to the eight Rwandans, who had nowhere else to go. But just weeks after signing the agreement, Niger cancelled their residence permits, confiscated their identity papers, confined the eight men to their home and threatened to expel them.
Niger said it cancelled the residency of the eight Rwandans for “diplomatic reasons.” It did not explain this vague phrase, but its decision was a result of intense political pressure by the Rwandan government, their lawyers and families believe.
They say the unofficial imprisonment is not only illegal but also a breach of UN promises that the Rwanda crimes tribunal would not become a form of “victor’s justice” to be meted out to the losers of Rwanda’s wars.
“They’re supposed to be free, and they’re not,” said Marie-Grâce Uwase Zigiranyirazo, daughter of Protais Zigiranyirazo, an 84-year-old Rwandan who was acquitted by the international tribunal in 2009 and is now among those under house arrest.
“They can’t move freely, they can’t even go to church, and yet they’ve been told that they didn’t commit a crime and they’re free,” said Ms. Zigiranyirazo, who now lives in Toronto.
“We want to believe in justice, but what we’re seeing is unfair, and we don’t see when it will end. It’s mental torture. We have a feeling of hopelessness.”
UN officials and defence lawyers have approached more than 42 countries to ask them to accept any of the Rwandans, but all have refused, just as Canada refused to accept Mr. Bicamumpaka. Meanwhile the eight men are running out of funds to pay for their food and other living costs. Most are elderly, with chronic health ailments.
“The situation is becoming dire,” their lawyers said in a statement last month.
“They also suffer from the stress and anxiety of their possible expulsion to Rwanda, where they fear that they would be persecuted, or worse,” said the statement by eight lawyers, including Canadian lawyers John Philpot and Allison Turner.
The tribunal’s successor agency, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), has sharply criticized Niger’s refusal to honour the agreement that it signed with the UN last November.
“The situation before me is a crisis,” said Judge Joseph Masanche of the IRMCT in a ruling in February.
Niger’s actions against the Rwandans were a “flagrant violation” of the UN agreement and had turned the rule of law “on its head,” the judge said.
He had earlier ordered Niger to return the confiscated identity documents to the eight Rwandans and to give them freedom of movement. The Niger government ignored the order.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, IRMCT president Carmel Agius said he was “deeply troubled” by Niger’s violation of the agreement and the “potentially severe impact” on the human rights of the Rwandans. The notion that a UN member state “could seek to disregard a recently concluded agreement with the United Nations is distressing and cannot be allowed to stand as a precedent,” he said.
Critics say that the indefinite confinement of the Rwandans is a vivid example of how Western and African governments are keen to curry favour with President Paul Kagame, the man who has ruled Rwanda almost single-handedly since the end of the genocide.
Rwandan troops are crucial to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa and security operations to protect Western natural-gas investments in Mozambique. Few governments are willing to jeopardize this key source of military stability.
The family members of the acquitted and released Rwandans have formed a group, Save Our Parents, to push for permission to reunify the eight men with their families. The group has held demonstrations in The Hague, where one of the IRMCT offices is located.
“We feel that our parents are stuck in the middle of something we don’t really understand,” said Diane Ashimwe, daughter of one of the acquitted Rwandan men, François-Xavier Nzuwonemeye.
“For me, it’s unjust because we really don’t know the reasons for it. If the UN cannot resolve the situation, who can?”
Mr. Bicamumpaka is among those who paid the price. After serving as Rwanda’s foreign minister for three months during the genocide in 1994, he was arrested and charged with genocide crimes, including murder, in 1999, and spent 12 years in pre-trial detention. The international tribunal’s court, based in Tanzania, tried him and acquitted him of all charges in 2011 after his lawyers showed that he was travelling in Europe and the United States at the time of the alleged crimes in Rwanda.
After his acquittal, unable to get Canada’s permission to join his family in Montreal, he spent a decade in a UN safe house in Tanzania, barred from seeking employment or official residency.
He applied for a Rwandan passport in Tanzania, but the Rwandan embassy told him he must apply in Rwanda – a move that would put him at risk of further prosecution and imprisonment, since the Rwandan government and state-controlled media have made it clear that they don’t accept the tribunal’s acquittals. Rwanda has a long track record of jailing and even killing its opponents, with many cases documented by human-rights groups.
Mr. Bicamumpaka remained in Tanzania, refusing the UN’s invitation to join the ill-fated group in Niger. When he was stricken with cancer, he was transferred to a hospital in Kenya, where he died on May 18, still stateless.
His son, Cédric, is convinced that Rwanda’s political influence is the reason why his father and other Rwandans were unable to join their families. “Even when they are acquitted, they had to live as if they are criminals,” he said.
Aidan Strickland, press secretary to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, said the immigration department cannot comment on specific cases. Global Affairs Canada did not respond to questions from The Globe about whether Canada accepts all verdicts of the international tribunal on Rwanda.
Lawyers say the Ottawa has a policy of refusing entry to high-ranking officials of the government that was in power in Rwanda in mid-1994, since the government itself was implicated in the genocide, although Canada’s Immigration Minister has the authority to issue exemptions to this policy.
Mr. Bicamumpaka, an economist by profession and a member of an opposition party, joined Rwanda’s interim government as foreign minister in April, 1994, after the genocide had begun. He served in the post for three months, until the government was defeated by Mr. Kagame’s invading army in July.
In Mr. Bicamumpaka’s travels as foreign minister, he defended the government and argued that the Tutsi death toll had been exaggerated. In one UN speech he made bizarre allegations of acts of cannibalism by the Kagame forces. His Canadian lawyer Philippe Larochelle, in an interview with The Globe last month, said the comments at the UN were “unfortunate.” But he noted that Mr. Bicamumpaka had also called for peace and had voted for a UN armed intervention to halt the genocide.
The specific charges against him at the tribunal were clearly fabricated, Mr. Larochelle said. His passport proved that he was in Europe and the United States at the time of the alleged crimes. One of his alleged murder victims was found to be alive, and a witness said he was coerced into testifying against him, his lawyer said.
“I spent 10 years in court with him, refuting all of the fabricated evidence,” Mr. Larochelle told The Globe.
“It was a long and difficult battle. But I didn’t realize it wasn’t the end of his troubles. We got an acquittal that meant nothing. For me, it was devastating when I saw him in a coffin in Montreal.”
Photo: Cédric Bicamumpaka and Jeannine Hakizimana visit the grave of Jérome Bicamumpaka in the ‘Repos Sant-François d’Assise’ (Saint Francis of Assisi cemetery) in the east end of Montreal on Sept. 1.
Source: Globe and Mail