Rwanda Genocide Arrest: Justice, but Is It for All?

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Idelphonse Nizeyimana, in an undated photo

Correction Appended Oct. 8, 2009

This week's arrest of accused Rwandan génocidaire Idelphonse Nizeyimana is the kind of thing that human-rights lawyers dream about. Dubbed the "Butcher of Butare," Nizeyimana is a suspect whose conviction would be a powerful symbol of justice in a land where thousands of the genocide's perpetrators escaped punishment by blending back into society or fleeing across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"In Kinyarwanda, his name would translate as 'I Believe in God,' which unfortunately is not the case. He believes in death," Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama told reporters on Tuesday. "He was an agitator, a handler, the chief killer in Butare. The arrest of this man ... is a very big relief to survivors of the genocide."

All of that is undoubtedly true. The perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, are guilty of one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity. But as the international tribunal where Nizeyimana will be tried prepares to wrap up by the end of 2013, celebrations over his arrest will not ease a long-held sense of discontent about the genocide's aftermath and whether justice has really been served. For all the big fish it may have landed, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has yet to consider the case of a single person accused of committing atrocities on behalf of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the guerrilla movement led by now President Paul Kagame.

Some observers might recoil at the idea of prosecuting Kagame's allies. The RPF, after all, ended the genocide in the face of Western inaction and double-talk. Kagame and his cohorts then encouraged reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis while setting about rebuilding Rwanda's shattered economy, promoting the small central African nation as a technology hub and an exporter of high-end coffee. The Western press often praises Kagame as the new face of African leadership.

Add to that the fact that Nizeyimana's alleged crimes are truly abhorrent. He was the Hutu intelligence chief at the time of the genocide and is believed to be one of the people most responsible for the horror. The particulars are grisly. His men allegedly killed 600 Tutsi students at Butare University, and they didn't stop there. Patients at a nearby hospital were dragged from their beds and hacked to death. Nizeyimana purportedly ordered Rwanda's ceremonial queen, Rosalie Gicanda, to be taken from her home and killed. Gicanda's elderly bed-ridden mother was killed days later.

Yet 15 years after the bloodshed, unexplored truths of the Rwandan genocide are beginning to emerge, suggesting that there were many more villains than commonly thought and that not all of them were Hutus. In a book published late last year, Africa expert Gerard Prunier says, for example, that Kagame did not want foreign forces to intervene for fear that they would block his path to power. Prunier also says that Kagame's forces believed some Tutsis deserved death because they had not fled years of Hutu repression before the genocide.

Many reports from the genocide indicate that the RPF killed some 45,000 people in a murderous campaign of its own. Experts have long said that those killers must also come before the ICTR. "If you deliver justice on one side and not the other, you leave a group of people angry and resentful, and they don't forget," renowned Rwanda investigator Alison des Forges told TIME last year, weeks before she died in a plane crash. Des Forges was insistent in her demand that members of the RPF face justice, but with her voice silenced and the tribunal winding down, her wish probably won't be realized.

That may be just how Kagame wants it. Human-rights groups say he has used the specter of the genocide to solidify his power base and perpetrate a new campaign of repression. The media is no longer free. Last year, the government passed a vague law that seeks to stamp out "genocide ideology." That has chilled free speech and criticism of the government.

There is another embarrassing fact about the ICTR. The tribunal is overburdened in part because referring cases back to Rwanda is politically fraught. Courts in France, Germany and Britain have refused to allow genocide suspects to be extradited to Rwanda for fear that they will not face a fair trial. "We have a lot of concerns about whether the Rwandan judiciary is independent," a Rwanda human-rights researcher, who did not wish to be named because that is their organization's policy, tells TIME. "Judges are being told how to decide cases; they don't always have the freedom to decide cases on the evidence." In addressing old injustices, the danger is always that new ones will be created.

The original version of this story has been changed to reflect the fact that the Rwanda human-rights researcher spoke anonymously because that is their organization's policy.