Belgium puts four Rwandans on trial for human rights violations

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A jury of 12 was selected today at a landmark trial at which four Rwandans â¿“ including two Roman Catholic nuns â¿“ face charges of aiding and abetting the murder of Tutsis as part of the genocide that swept the Central African nation in 1994.

A jury of 12 was selected today at a landmark trial at which four Rwandans – including two Roman Catholic nuns – face charges of aiding and abetting the murder of Tutsis as part of the genocide that swept the Central African nation in 1994.

As many as 170 witnesses may testify, including 50 from Rwanda who will be flown to Belgium as and when they are required to appear before Judge Luc Maes and the jurors.

The defendants – two Roman Catholic nuns, a university professor and an aide to a former Rwandan president – face charges of premeditated murder.

They sat quietly on a bench at the opening of the trial that is expected to last six weeks. During that time they will not be held in custody.

Scores of journalists, photographers, camera crews and relatives of victims of Rwanda's genocide attended the opening day of the trial.

The proceedings are highly unusual: a Belgian criminal court is asking four Rwandans to account for what they did 6,000 kilometres (3,750 miles) away in April, 1994, to Tutsi refugees hiding at a Roman Catholic convent and health centre in southern Rwanda.

This is possible under a 1993 law empowering Belgian courts to hear cases of human rights violations, even if these were committed half a world away.

The defendants each have been charged with murder in specific instances.

That makes their trial strictly speaking not a genocide case on charges of crimes against humanity.

However, Belgium's eagerness to prosecute stems from a sense of unease, above all about its own inability to stop the systematic killing of at least 500,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus, in 1994.

On a visit to Rwanda last year, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt apologized for Belgium's failure to do more to prevent the slaughter. The record shows Belgian officials reported before the killings that political turmoil in Rwanda – which has a long history of Hutu–Tutsi rivalry – was setting the stage for a blood bath.

After jury selection today, the court heard procedural objections from the defence, followed by a reading of the charges against the defendants. The charges are that:

– On April 22, 1994, Benedictine Sister Maria Kisito, 36, who was born as Julienne Makubutera, provided gasoline that was used to set ablaze a building near her convent and health centre outside the southern Rwandan town of Butare where 500 Tutsis were hiding.

– On April 21, 1994, Benedictine Sister Gertrude, 42, who was born as Consolata Mukangango, forced hundreds of Tutsis hiding in the convent to leave knowing they were going to be killed. Some 600 died May 5, the prosecution alleges. Sister Gertrude asked officials to remove the last remaining 30 Tutsis who were then killed May 6.

– National University of Rwanda Professor Vincent Ntezimana, 40, bears responsibility for the deaths of at least seven Tutsis, including a colleague and his wife, who were murdered by Hutu extremists.

– Alphonse Higaniro, 52, owner of a match factory and an aide to President Juvenal Habyarimana who died in an April 6, 1994 plane crash that set off the mass killings, incited Hutus to murder Tutsis and of consorting with Hutu militiamen.

Courts in Rwanda have already heard several hundred cases. Twenty–two people have been sentenced to death and executed for their role in planning and carrying out the massacres.

The United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, is holding 44 suspects and has tried half a dozen cases.

Because Rwanda is a little–known place for most Belgians, the jurors will get a crash course in its ethnic history and divisions from several witnesses, including journalists and human rights activists.