Rwandan bishop on trial for genocide

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CLAD IN regulation pink prison pyjamas, but with a crucifix still resolutely around his neck, Bishop Augustin Misago went before the court in Kigali yesterday to defend himself against charges of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Trials of those accused of responsibility for the atrocities, which claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans, take place every week in different parts of the country, with the authorities steadily working through a huge legal backlog. Many pass almost unnoticed, but Bishop Misago's case is different.

The Bishop of Gikongoro is the highest-ranking priest to have been detained, and his arrest in April drew fierce condemnation from the Vatican, which accused the Rwandan government of "striking a blow against the whole of the Catholic Church". Should he be found guilty, or worse still, condemned to death, the already strained relationship between the Rwandan government and the Church of Rome would probably be destroyed.

The charges are serious, focusing on the Right Rev Augustin Misago's alleged failure to protect Tutsis who fled to his bishopric in April 1994 as the genocide spread west into Gikongoro. Bishop Misago is accused of sending away dozens of children who had asked for sanctuary, and of declining to help a group of priests he knew to be in danger. Given the political climate of the time, his failure to act has been likened to signing a series of death warrants.

There have also been reports of the bishop attending meetings with local officials and security chiefs who had a mandate to exterminate the Tutsis.

Two human rights organisations, African Rights and Human Rights Watch, have identified him as one of the most culpable clergymen in the church hierarchy.

While the allegations against him had been in circulation for five years, it was only in April that the state decided to act. President Pasteur Bizimungu used an address to a genocide memorial service at Kibeho, scene of many of the worst atrocities in the south-west, to humiliate the cleric publicly. He was in effect acting as host of the day. The President warned that good relations between church and state depended on errant priests being made accountable for their actions, warning that if the Vatican was not willing to discipline Bishop Misago, the government certainly was.

The bishop subsequently published a long rebuttal of the accusations through the Catholic news agency, Misna, arguing that he was the victim of an opportunistic regime out to victimise prominent Hutus. But days later he was in prison.

Defence lawyers have argued in the past for the bishop's release on health grounds. At the first court appearance, they promptly won an adjournment, claiming that normal legal procedures had been waived and their client had not been given enough time to prepare his case. The trial resumes next Wednesday, with the prosecutors confident of securing a conviction. Genocide survivors from Gikongoro are likely to be prominent among the witnesses.

Ominously for Bishop Misago, the courtroom in the Nyamirambo district stands just five minutes' walk from the Tapis Rouge playing field, where five convicted genocide prisoners went before a firing squad in April last year.