Belgian priest denies inciting Rwanda killings

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The Independent Online

The arrest of Father Guy Theunis caused a furore last week in Brussels, where the Foreign Minister, Karel de Gucht, expressed astonishment at the priest's arrest. Belgium has formally asked for an explanation for Rwanda. But yesterday Father Theunis had to take to the stand to defend himself against accusations that he incited genocide by reprinting inflammatory articles from the Kangura newspaper, an extremist Hutu publication, in his own magazine, entitled Dialogue. A Belgian journalist pleaded guilty to similar charges before a UN court in 2000 and is serving a 12-year sentence.

Prosecutors claim that over 20 reprinted articles in Dialogue encouraged extremist Hutus to take part in massacres of Tutsis. Father Theunis claims that the pieces were only published as part of a general press review.

"I was shocked when I was arrested," Father Theunis told a gacaca or people's court yesterday in Kigali. "My conscience tells me that I am innocent, I loved Rwanda ever since I came here, and mostly Tutsis. I am astonished to hear all these allegations levelled against me. I sometimes wrote articles to press for human rights."

Father Theunis is a member of the Catholic order of the White Fathers and was a missionary in the central African country from 1970 until 1994. He was arrested on Tuesday as he waited in Kigali's airport lounge for a flight to Belgium.

More than 20 people are testifying for the prosecution in the case, which has been processed through the gacaca system set up by authorities to clear a backlog of genocide cases.

An ex-priest, Jean Damascene Bizimana, told the court in the capital, Kigali, that he had heard Father Theunis talk of future Tutsi deaths. "In 1992 you found me in Switzerland and I asked you about the murder of Tutsis in Bugesera [in southern Rwanda]," said Mr Bizimana. "You answered me that if RPF [the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army] did not stop fighting, more ethnic Tutsis would be killed in other areas," he said.

A leading human rights activist, Tom Ndahiro, accused Father Theunis, together with Father Jef Vleugels, of sending frequent "misleading" faxes to their order in Europe.

But Allison des Forges, an adviser on African affairs with the US-based Human Rights Watch, said Father Theunis worked with them on unearthing rights abuses in Rwanda before the genocide.

Judge Kalisa ruled that the case should be moved to a conventional court of law, rather than a gacaca.