Rwanda priest tried for genocide

The accused, 41-year-old Athanase Seromba, is the first Catholic priest to go on trial at the tribunal, set up after the slaughter of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Seromba denies charges that he organised the massacre of Tutsis at a church in the central African country.

He has refused to appear in court, accusing the tribunal of bias and is one of 44 detainees at the International Criminal Tribunal who have boycotted proceedings to protest plans to move detainees and case files to Rwanda.

It is the first time a Catholic cleric faces trial at the ICTR. Courts in Rwanda have convicted several priests – although two were later acquitted on appeal – and, in 2001, a Belgian court found two Catholic nuns guilty of playing a role in the genocide.

Seromba, who turned himself in two years ago, has pleaded not guilty to the charges levelled against him: genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.

He is alleged to have prepared and supervised, together with local authorities, the April 1994 massacre of more than 2,000 Tutsis who had sought refuge in his church in the western parish of Nyange from extremist Hutu killers.

His lawyers will argue that although he was present at the time of the killings, he was powerless to intervene.

Over the course of 100 days in 1994, some 800,000 people from Rwanda’s Tutsi minority were slaughtered in a campaign carefully orchestrated at the highest levels of the then Hutu regime, with which the Vatican enjoyed close relations.

The priest is alleged to have ordered the church, packed with more than 2,000 terrified Tutsis, to be bulldozed. The few who managed to survive were quickly killed by the Hutu extremists.

He left Rwanda after Tutsi rebels seized power in July 1994, putting an end to the genocide, and hid out in neighbouring Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Kenya before settling in Italy, where the Diocese of Florence gave him shelter and allowed him to practise in a Tuscan village.

After pressure mounted from international human rights organisations and the ICTR issued a warrant for his arrest, which Italy initially refused to honour, the priest finally surrendered to the court in February 2002.

Seromba continues to enjoy the support of the Vatican, which insists there is no evidence to prove the priest’s guilt and which has a reputation for dragging its feet when it comes to cooperating with various jurisdictions trying to prosecute its officials.

In a letter to ICTR President Eric Mose, the 44 protesting detainees – subjects on trial, awaiting verdicts or appeal rulings – threatened to start a hunger strike if the tribunal failed to clarify its “real position” about what will happen to outstanding cases when the tribunal’s mandate expires.

Under deadlines set by the UN Security Council, ongoing ICTR investigations must be wrapped by the end of this year, trials in progress by 2008 and appeals by 2010.

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