KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwanda finally got custody of one of its most long-awaited genocide fugitives, Leon Mugesera, who was deported from Canada.
Mugesera is accused of inciting Rwanda's genocide, in which nearly 1 million were killed in 1994. He allegedly encouraged the mass killing in 1992, two years before the rampage of murders took place.
Mugesera, a long-time Canada resident, had failed to convince a Canadian Superior court that he would be tortured if returned to this tiny Central African country so he was flown back.
As if to welcome Mugesera home — and just before the well-known fugitive’s arrival Tuesday night — a grenade attack rocked Rwanda’s normally serene Muhunga District about 18 miles from the Kigali airport. Ten people were injured in the blast, the second this month, but police who immediately took two suspects into custody, were silent on any connection with the return of the man famous for allegedly calling Rwandans to violence.
It is unclear whether the two recent grenade attacks, the first signs of unrest in Rwanda in several months, will mark a return to the spree of coordinated grenade blasts that terrorized this otherwise peaceful country throughout 2010 and parts of 2011.
Kigali airport itself was quiet, aside from a slew of local reporters, as a pensive Mugesera, 59, a linguist who had lived in Canada since 1993, stepped from a private Learjet around midnight and was read his rights on a steamy Kigali tarmac. He was then handcuffed and driven off with investigators to be briefed on his charges. He will be held for processing for a maximum of 72 hours before, according to Rwandan law, he must be formally charged.
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“It has been a rocky, long and circuitous road, but Canada has made the right decision in the case of Leon Mugesera,” said Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga after the flight carrying Mugesera touched down on Tuesday night. “Mugesera returns to find a country at peace, far removed from the vision of ethnic hatred and bloodshed he propagated before seeking exile in Canada two decades ago.”
Mugesera’s arrival in Rwanda is significant on several levels.
It marks the first deportation of a person to Rwanda from Canada on the basis of hate speech and provides a sort of international acknowledgement that the genocide itself was a planned event that began years before the 1994 pogroms rather than a spontaneous occurrence, as some claim. It also demonstrates an increasing willingness on the part of western governments — and even the UN — to cooperate with Rwandan justice officials and allow fugitives to be tried on Rwandan soil.
For his part, Mugesera will face charges of hate speech and inciting violence for his words in 1992. Nearly 20 years ago, Mugesera made a rousing speech to about 1,000 Hutu-power supporters in which he referred to Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi as “scum” and used the now famous moniker “cockroaches.” Significantly, Mugesera went a step further when he allegedly suggested mass carnage by saying that the Tutsi should be sent back to Ethiopia, their fabled ancestral land, via a shortcut through the Nyabarongo River.
The Nyabarongo connects Rwanda to Ethiopia via the Nile, but is not navigable by boat. Mugesrea’s words, spoken two years before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, evoked visions of corpses floating up the river. That image became a reality in 1994 when thousands of bodies of Tutsis and moderate Hutus clogged the waterway, eventually rotting in Lake Victoria.
Rwanda will be watched closely by the international community to see how they handle this high-profile suspect as Mugesera and his lawyers had vehemently argued to Canadian and international courts he would be tortured and likely killed if returned to his homeland.
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The stakes are high for Rwanda. For more than a decade the country has tried — and mostly failed — to gain access to its most wanted genocide fugitives to be tried in Rwandan courts.
Rwanda’s controversial Gacaca courts are finally coming to a close and that coincides with the winding-down of the largely unsuccessful and wildly expensive International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Without the ICTR, the last genocide suspects in asylum countries have nowhere else to go. Host countries must decide to try the suspects themselves or send them back to Rwanda.
Last year, Germany broke ground by deciding to try suspects in Frankfurt, though defense investigators claim even the trial in Germany could be unfair because of a lack of cooperation on the ground from Rwandan officials.
But the ICTR has said suspects could be tried fairly in the new Rwanda and began transferring them in 2011.
By deporting Mugesera, Canada joins a list of other countries suddenly willing to take similar measures, showing renewed faith in modern Rwanda’s judicial system.
A Kansas court also ruled that genocide suspect, Lazare Kabagoya, could be deported and tried in Rwanda, though the case is caught in appeal.
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A Norwegian court has said that Charles Bandora, who arrived in Norway with a false passport last year, could be sent back to Rwanda after being arrested on charges of genocide in his homeland.
In 2011, Swedish courts ruled that Sylvère Ahorugeze could be extradited to Rwanda for trial and, in October, the European Court for Human Rights upheld that decision.
Even France is working on sending a handful of fugitives to Rwanda including Sosthene Munyemana, an emergency room doctor who Bordeaux officials have detained since France rejected his asylum demand in 2008.
Rwanda abolished the death penalty in 2007 and has collaborated with the United Nations across a range of justice and human rights issues. The UN has entrusted Rwanda to house war criminals from Sierra Leone and the UNHCR has declared the country safe for returning refugees.
The first genocide suspect will face trial in Rwanda in 2012 after a referral from the ICTR. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of the fairness of the Rwandan justice system and the United States has already deported two Rwandans convicted of genocide who are currently serving their prison sentences.
Mugesera will be the most public test of how a new Rwanda treats its most wanted fugitives.
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