Saturday, 1 October 2011

Justice Delayed at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

Yesterday, a Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda issued its judgment in the so-called ‘Government case’, where four former ministers of the Rwandan government were  defendants. An astonishing result: two of the four were acquitted. The other two were convicted and sentenced to lengthy terms.
As is so often the case with the Rwanda Tribunal, we have a pressrelease but no judgment. There will be one eventually, of course. But this practice of rendering judgment by press release with a judgment to follow is not very good.
It is not the longest trial at the Tribunal, but comes close to setting a record. The length is especially troubling given the verdict. The four accused have been in custody since 1999. Twelve years is a very long time to be in custody when the result is an acquittal. Does anybody know of a case where people were detained for longer than twelve years and then acquitted at trial anywhere in the world in any functional justice system? Over the years much criticism has been levelled at the Rwandan justice system, where men and women were held in detention pending trial for lengthy periods. By, the Rwandan justice system compares well to the International Tribunal in this respect.
The trial itself began in 2003 before Trial Chamber II. It was a saga of missed targets at virtually every stage. In 2005, the President of the Tribunal reported to the Security Council that the trial would be completed in 2006 (see UN Doc. S/2005/782, p. 19). In 2006, he said it would be completed in 2007 (see UN Doc. S/2006/951, Enclosure, p. 17.). In 2007, he said it would be completed in ‘mid-2008’ (see UN Doc. S/2007/676, Enclosure, p. 17). In late-2008, he said judgment was expected in 2009 (see UN Doc. S/2008/726, Enclosure, para. 10). In late 2009, the President of the Tribunal informed the Security Council that the judgment was now expected sometime between September and December 2010 (UN Doc. S/2009/587, Enclosure, p. 76).
The evidentiary phase of the trial concluded with a site visit to Rwanda, in October 2008. Closing arguments were heard during the first week of December 2008. So the Trial Chamber has had the matter under consideration for thirty-three months, from December 2008 until September 2011. And after all of that, the best it can come up with is a press release. Surely if there was to be a unanimous verdict of acquittal in two of the four cases, they could have released these men long ago. Did the judges only decide to acquit in the last few days? They can't argue that they needed to finish drafting a lengthy and complex judgment, because all they have given us is a miserable press release, something that can be drafted in an hour or two. 
Perhaps we will know more about this troubling story when the judgment is finally issued. But we are due an explanation from the Trial Chamber for this extraordinary story of delay. As for the two acquitted men, who will surely ask for some form of compensation, they will be told that there is no budget or provision for such things, and that they should be happy with an acquittal.

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